This morning when I was on my way to school, I was listening to the popular podcast This American Life. This has been my favorite podcast ever since I was a kid, and I always look forward to new episodes every Sunday. I’ve probably listened to 100 episodes in my life, and countless stories. This makes it hard to choose a favorite episode, or even a few. I found that trying to narrow it down to a handful of favorite episodes is pointless, because it’s the individual one or two stories within an episode that matter the most.
For those of you that aren’t familiar, This American Life is a compilation of stories (real or sometimes fictional) and essays. Each week, the production team picks a certain theme, and chooses 3-4 stories that were submitted by listeners to tell about the subject. The podcast is hosted weekly by journalist Ira Glass, and has been going on since 1995 with a collection of 651 episodes. The episodes can be on anything: infidelity, church start-ups, and politics to name a few. Amid all of the stories I’ve listened to, there are a few that really stick out to me. A story of two siblings creating a fake family; a romantic dollar bill; and, a series of birthday letters from the dead.
STORY 1: LETTER DAY SAINT (Episode #401, “The Parent Trap”)
The best birthday present ever: a letter from a dead parent. For one woman, Rebecca, this was her reality. Her mom Elizabeth died from cancer when she was a teenager, and her mother had left her a series of letters to open on specific days or events: Christmas, graduation, wedding, and every birthday. She wanted to ensure she would always be there for her daughter, even in death. At first, it was beautiful. Rebecca was able to get comfort knowing her mom was looking after her. On the first few birthdays she looked forward to being able to read those letters and get wisdom from her mother that she couldn’t get from a dad.
However, after a while it felt less like her mother was watching out for her, and more like she was just being watched. Elizabeth was Mormon and wanted the same for Rebecca. In most letters, she would tell Rebecca she can find her in the Mormon church by praying. She hopes Rebecca will find a nice Mormon man and have children to keep Elizabeth’s memory alive through her faith. The letters made Rebecca feel like she couldn’t ever gain peace from her mother’s death: every time she was able to move on, there was another letter to be opened on her birthday and with every letter opened, there was another wound to be opened. It made grieving constant and peace impossible.
These letters also made Rebecca’s relationship with her father extremely . Her father felt like he couldn’t compete with a dead parent. While Rebecca grew up with normal problems with her dad, Elizabeth was held on a much higher pedestal. She could do no wrong, and her father couldn’t argue with that. This was coupled with the fact that her father didn’t read the letters as a dying request from Elizabeth. They were for her and her daughter only. The reporter on the story, David Segal, says that when Rebecca died, she left the bricks for a wall that would keep Rebecca and her father apart.
The letters were written to be opened on birthdays for 13 years after Elizabeth died, ending with a letter for Rebecca’s wedding. This also happened to be after the 13 years, so there would be no more birthday letters. Rebecca was dreading opening the wedding letter knowing it would all be about how Elizabeth hoped she was married in a Mormon temple, which Rebecca and her husband didn’t do. Rebecca said she felt an odd sense of relief when the last letter was lost in the mail.
The trouble with the ending of the series was that Rebecca had to grieve twice. Once for her mother losing her life, and another for the ending of the letters. However when her husband tragically died in a car accident 18 months after the wedding, she says she is now farther along in her grieving for her husband than she was 10 years after her mother died. Rebecca says she is still grateful for the letters. They let her know how much her mother cared for her.
My next story is a little more uplifting. If you want to read it, make sure to check out my next article!