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Letter to Charlotte

By LuEllen Huntley

She’s cute the last time we shop for groceries, wearing pressed jeans with a sparkle button jean jacket, exactly hemmed. Hair washed, set and combed the way she likes it. After putting almost everything on her “list” into our cart, she needs a restroom break. When she comes out, she’s forgotten it all. I show her our cart, nearly full. She wants to start over with all the things on the list. This is how it goes, sooner or later. Our grocery shopping together ends this day. I take over writing down the grocery items on her notepad at home, but a time comes when even the list doesn’t matter anymore.

Three years before our last shopping trip, during a daily visit, she says, “I’ve written a birthday letter for Charlotte’s second birthday.” Charlotte is her first great-grandchild. She has four grown children, four adult grandchildren, and by the time she writes her letter to Charlotte, three great-grandchildren. She has seen pictures of her two great-grandsons, but Charlotte is the only one she’s held in her arms. She occupies her mind that day. “I want you to keep this and give it to Charlotte’s parents when she’s 11,” she says.

Her mind has not yet betrayed her, but it will. Sooner than we dare to think. She looks me in the eye when giving directives, as she always does. Her commanding codes, spoken and unspoken, reflect her resolve, an attribute refined from teaching elementary school. Her handwriting on the envelope — meticulous as ever — betrays what I know. She’s written this over and over again for perfection.

I’m charmed by my mother’s unquestioning trust in me as her courier. Although it’s been a gradual shift, our roles as mother and daughter have reversed. And here she is, having completed an assignment she has given herself, sharing wisdom with her great-granddaughter, and honoring me to be the messenger. It’s a sacred trust. My father, her high school sweetheart, passed away seven months before and she’s carrying on. In private, I know she suffers. We all do.

In August 2022, eight years after my mother writes her letter and more than two years after she, herself, has passed away, I send it to Charlotte’s parents. It’s her 10th birthday. It’s written on two notebook pages, front and back. Her voice is in every line. She tells Charlotte she knows what it’s like to be young and to want to be admired but to understand that she already is. Walk proudly, she says, and that when hard times come faith will see her through, just as it did her.

On August 21, 2023, Charlotte will be 11. When she reads the letter from her great-grandmother, her brown eyes will grow wide. Written in the past, it’s delivered in the present to the future, from an old soul to a young one. Ink on paper. A list for life.  PS

LuEllen Huntley, associate professor emerita in the UNCW Department of English, lives in Pinehurst. She is originally from Wadesboro, in Anson County.