Letters from strangers are the nicest letters to get when someone dies. It’s great to get cards and notes from people you know, of course, but a letter from an unknown acquaintance of the deceased has a certain air of sanctity. It tells you that the person who died was a great person when you weren’t around, and lets you in on their other life—the one they led without you.
An old friend of mine recently passed away in a tragic, but not entirely unexpected, accident, and I wrote a very similar email to his mother (an email might be a little tacky, but she lives in South Africa and I didn’t want to delay it). “You don’t know me, but I knew your son, and though we only spent a few days together, he was someone very important to me…,” etc. Her son traveled the world and knew a lot of people, so my note was one of many she received from strangers. But she was so happy to get it, and said she took enormous comfort from all she learned about her son from people she would probably never meet.
This letter to my mother makes me happy, but it’s also very confusing. My father wasn’t a great person when I was around, but look who he was when he was on his own! It’s sad I didn’t even get a glimpse of this George, but I get that a petulant teenager is probably less interesting than a boozy Irish businessman who isn’t failing freshman math. And I think we often save our best selves for strangers. I can be quiet or removed at home with my boyfriend, but when we meet up with friends or go out and meet new people, I come alive. I didn’t even realize I did this until my boyfriend got on my case about it. I took being quiet as a positive sign of being comfortable, but eventually that comfort can turn into distance, and I think our partners might like us to “turn it on” for them like we do for other people.
It’s really touching to read how much my father spoke about us. I don’t entirely believe it—you kind of have to say those things—but it’s nice to be reminded that my view of our relationship, and our family dynamics, wasn’t necessarily his. It still seems impossible that he could have seen it any differently than I did, but if I keep thinking that way, this project would be pointless.
I love that my father was such a good drinking buddy, and also that he was “…a breath of fresh air…with his honesty and openness after the endless battering one takes in conducting business in today’s Kyiv.” I always thought my dad was a moral business person, but I’m also curious how moral you could really be at that time in Eastern Europe. He tried very hard to steer all of his endeavors in the right direction, and it didn’t always work. That was why he left his original position with the National Bank of Ukraine and ended a few partnerships in West Africa. I spent almost a year in Africa after college, and when I asked if it might be possible to visit some of my father’s former colleagues in Nigeria or Cameroon my mother said, “Nope, they’re all in jail.”