The biggest regret I have seems insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I should regret so many of the things I’ve said and done, all the trips I didn’t take because of a shortage of cash, being a bad friend and blaming it on things outside of my control. But my biggest regret isn’t a mistake or a misstep. It’s a letter that I should have written. Just one letter in eleven years. But I never wrote it, and for that I will always be sorry.
I grew up in the military. My dad was a chief in the U.S. Navy by the time he retired, and my two younger brothers and I were all born in different United States cities. We even almost went to Germany and Japan, but never quite made it. What many people don’t know about being in the military is that you make your own family. My mother is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and my father is from the tiny town of Fennville, Michigan. They were both the only two members of their families to leave.
Growing up, I saw my extended family once, maybe twice, per year. We would spend a whole month up north visiting family members, but most of the year we spent in Jacksonville, Florida, because my father was stationed at Mayport. I loved my family, but I didn’t miss them that much because growing up, I barely knew them. At home, we had Miss Timmy, Miss Jen, and Miss Regina, just to name a few. We had all of our friends, with whom we played for hours, and who were more fun than our cousins. But most importantly, we had Maureen and Grandma Alice.
I was the first person to call her “Grandma,” though I don’t know how many people realize that. At five, I just wanted someone to call Grandma, like other kids could, and so I asked if it would be all right. The answer was an enthusiastic “yes” from the 85-year-old lady. A whole neighborhood of kids under 12 decided she was their grandmother. She made sure to be on her stationary bike in the garage every day at 3:00, so she could catch us coming home. Later I learned that she only exercised for the five minutes it took for us to get around the corner after getting off the bus.
Her daughter, Maureen, lived with and took care of her. Maureen was a nun before she left the convent, and if her mother always made sure to stop me on my way home from school, Maureen was always willing to talk to me as she watered the huge garden she maintained behind their little yellow house. She answered questions about science and life and never talked down to me, even when I was six or seven years old. All of her answers contained gravity and wisdom, and when she spoke to me, I felt like a grown up. Maureen and Grandma Alice were my family, the one that I chose.
It was Maureen who taught my mother to sit in the front row at Mass, so that we kids could see what was going on and would be more likely to pay attention. Whenever she babysat, she always had Jell-O, because Grandma Alice was diabetic and it was one dessert that she was always allowed to have. And long before we grew aloe at our own house, she hacked off some from her own garden and told me to put it on my badly sunburned shoulders. Looking back, she was eminently practical, but there was so much love in her practicality, you could see it in her smile.
After fifth grade, my father retired and we moved to Indiana. I never wrote to Maureen and only saw her once, in tenth grade when we went back to visit. I saw a letter she wrote to my mother. It had beautiful, slanting script. The kind you used to learn in school, before computers became important. It was on small, salmon-colored stationery, the exact color I can remember her button-down blouse being. When we went back to visit five years later, Grandma Alice had died, and Maureen had somehow gotten old. I hadn’t expected it, and because I was so young, it scared me and made me uncomfortable. I am embarrassed by those feelings now.
She died in 2009, about a month after my college graduation. I didn’t find out until two years later, when I was deep into law school. As it turned out, nobody had known. She had quietly moved into a local nursing home from the little yellow house and had quietly died. I found out after the fact that she had not just been a science teacher as a nun, but had actually been a chemist for Allied Chemical after she left the convent. I didn’t know anything about her, except that she was a person who I loved, and who loved me.
I never wrote her a letter. Not once to say how I was doing, to ask how she was. I think that the amount of moving I’ve done in my life has taught me not to keep ties. We move forward, not backward, and it’s pointless to try to stay connected beyond a smile now and then. And I’ve been wrong. I’ve been so wrong. All I ever had to do was put pen to paper.
If there is a place after this, I know the first people I’ll see will be Maureen and Grandma Alice, just like when I was walking home from school. Grandma Alice will be on her bike, waiting for me to come around the corner, and Maureen will be watering her plants. And hopefully, it won’t matter that I never wrote that letter. And the regret won’t matter, either.