I folded Sheena’s letter, placed it back in the envelope, and reached for another that was addressed to Sally. Sally was a nickname I’d given Nicole when she was a baby, and it had stuck. Even now, if anyone refers to Nicole as Sally, I know when and where I know them from. Inside the envelope were two folded sheets of notepaper. The first was dated 11-27-91 and was addressed “Dear Gummy Bear Eater.” Immediately, I thought back to the gummy-bear incident.
Nicole and I were visiting my friend Shirley, and Shirley wanted to show me something in her kitchen. Nicole, who was ten and newly diagnosed with diabetes, sat on the sofa watching cartoons. When we returned, a candy dish of gummy bears that was sitting on the coffee table was empty.
“Sally, did you eat the gummy bears?” Shirley asked.
“Nicole,” I said, “there were gummy bears in the dish when we went in the kitchen, and now they’re gone. Are you saying that you didn’t eat them?”
“No, Mommy. I never saw any gummy bears.”
“Well, Shirley said winking at me, “they were bears; maybe they came to life and walked away by themselves.”
“I don’t know,” Nicole shrugged.
And so Shirley and I said no more about it.
Later that day, I found a note taped to my bedroom mirror: “Mommy, I ate the gummy bears.” After we sat down and talked about it, I told her to call Miss Shirley and apologize for eating her gummy bears… and for lying about it. As she went to call Shirley, I wrote a letter back to Nicole and taped it to the mirror.
When I saw Shirley at work the next day, she gave me an envelope to give to Nicole. I delivered the envelope but never asked Nicole or Shirley what the letter said. Now 17 years later I held the letter in my hand: “Dear Gummy Bear Eater, I really don’t mind the last of those little treats. The only thing that concerns me is I hope you don’t get sick. Guess what? I love you! ~Shirley.”
Shirley’s letter was the first folded sheet of notepaper in the envelope. The second folded letter in the envelope was the letter I’d taped to the mirror: “Nicole, I forgive you for eating the gummy bears. I’m glad that you are taking full responsibility for what you did and admitted that you were wrong. I’m proud that you thought enough to apologize. That shows that you are growing up. ~Mommy.”
On the back of the same notepaper, Nicole had written: “!!!!I love you, and thank you for forgiving me!!!! P.S. I love you! ~Sally.”
The last envelope was by itself at the bottom of the shoebox. It had three words on the front, all underlined and written in pencil. In the upper left corner was written Nicole. In the upper right corner was written Airmail. In the center of the envelope was written God. The letter was dated July 1996; Nicole was 15:
It’s difficult for me to pray because it seems like other things just pop into my mind while I’m praying. This way seems a lot more comfortable for me. It’s just that it’s kind of hard to stop doing what you shouldn’t be and start doing what you should. Lord, you know what I need help in, so please lend me your hand. It’s so much to thank you for, so I’m just going to say, Thank you for everything you’ve done and for all you’re going to do. Thank you for keeping my mommy strong, and keeping her from giving up on me. Thank you too for not giving up on me, Lord. Amen.
By the time I’d finished with the second shoebox, it was nearly 4 a.m. I had spent seven hours reading letters and cards, many of which I hadn’t known existed. I was feeling ambivalent about it all. I was overjoyed to have found these things, and surprised that Nicole had so meticulously saved and stored a lifetime of mementos.
I gathered all the letters and placed them back in the second shoebox. The only things remaining were the folders that had been at the bottom of the main box.
One of the folders was filled with report cards, standardized test score sheets, certificates of attendance from Vacation Bible School and elementary school, certificates for participating in the science fair and the art fair, and awards for volunteering.
Another folder was filled with Bible notes. On a 2x2 square of paper taped to the inside cover of the folder, she’d written, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Her notes would also indicate that at some point she’d had a fascination with the poetic Book of Job, having hand written a three-page narrative of the first 20 chapters.
A third folder was filled with her own poetry. Nicole often wrote poetry for me on Valentine’s day and my birthday. The first poem she ever wrote me was for Valentine’s day; she was eight:
Don’t be sad, and don’t be mad,
Get glad cause I have something
2x2 means I love you
3x3 means come get me
4x4 means come out of that apartment door
6x6 means I’ll never get mix
8x8 means will you be my date
9x9 means be my Valentine all the time
10x10 means write by pen for me
Roses Are Red
Violets Are Blue
My Heart Skips
A Beat When I
Think Of You
The last poem she wrote me was for my birthday a couple years before she died.
Year after year, I learn a lot more from you
I love it when you share with me something new
The wisdom and knowledge that you’ve acquired
Through the years
Have been accepted through smiles and tears
I love to hear you laugh, and I’m amazed
At all the strength you have
I secretly watch everything you do so
Year after year I can become more like you.
Of course, these are poems that I’ve saved that are among my own sentimental possessions, but inside this folder were more poems… beautiful poems, like this one:
Why You Stayed
Sometimes I lay on my bed and daydream
All that you’ve done and all that you’re doing
seems too good to be true.
When we first started out, I was unfaithful
to it all. My heart wasn’t in it. I was unable to fall
in love with you. Still, you gave me endless love
but from me, continuous pain.
I didn’t understand why you stayed.
What was it you stood to gain?
The way you faithfully stayed, I had to know what it was
you saw in me that made you love me so,
so I started to listen when you talked,
hold your hand when we walked.
In your presence standing there, you openly
told me of the riches you wanted to share.
Since I’ve accepted your invitation, everything
Now I understand why you stayed:
It was I who stood to gain.
I read page after page of her poetry, some haunting, some lighthearted, some erotic. Also in the folder were what appeared to be rap lyrics, raw, edgy and cutting. And with every turn of a page, I was filled with pride.
But it was the final folder in the bottom of the box, a dark blue binder with some of its pages falling out, that would grip my heart more than the contents of all the boxes put together.