Whenever I visit my parents, Mom likes to pull out old family albums. She loves to spend evenings enjoying the old pictures of us and reminding my brother and me that we should take pictures of each other more often, now that we are grown up and taking pictures is not something we are crazy about. The other night, while we were watching television, she told me that she still has all the letters we had received from our relatives during our first years in Italy. It was like receiving an electric shock.
“Get them out now,” I told her. Only the moment I finished the sentence did I realize the mess I had got myself into. Growing up, I became aware of my sensitivity and predisposition to get emotional. Predisposition that, when it comes to my parents’ past, reaches its peak. It was enough to read the first few sentences of a couple of letters to realize that my eyes got wet and tears were there to get out. So I only took a quick look at all of them, knowing that if I started reading them, I would burst into endless weeping. And I wanted to avoid that, with all my family members present. If part of the motivation is a stupid shame, the other part is the fact that to fully enjoy something, I need to be alone. That way, should I get emotional, I can cry without restraint, without the anxiety of having to tell someone beside me that everything is fine. It would ruin the moment.
So I waited for everyone to go to sleep and started reading. The letters are dated from 1995 to 1998. The first question I asked myself while reading them was how on earth they were sending them to each other. The next day, Mom told me that they were not using the post-delivery service, rather they were waiting for some of their Kosovar friends in Italy to go to Kosovo and give them the letters so that they could give them to our relatives. And they would do the same. The moment someone came to visit them, they knew that was the moment to read in a hurry and write down everything they had to say and ask before that person left. And all this with the constant exhausting, endless waiting. Months could pass from one letter to the next.
What struck me about those letters were a bunch of things. The first is the beginning of them. The first lines are always written in a very cordial way.
“I, …, greet you my brother, your wife and your son. I have decided to write you this letter and in doing so firstly I hope you are all well”.
After the introduction is every time a bombshell of feelings. Love, lack, sorrow, hope.
In our culture, there is no overt exposure to feelings. No matter what happens, there is always some restraint at the base. Which is respected somewhat less for moments of joy, but which is respected impeccably in moments of sorrow. I always wondered how they lived such a contained life, sentimentally. Part of the answer perhaps I found in those letters. That was where they could let it go. Away from prying eyes. In those letters, I saw the sentimental part I had never seen in my people.
The situation in Kosovo during those years was quite difficult. What my parents repeat every time they talk about those years, is the word “nothing”. Nothing was moving. It was almost impossible to find a job. There was no flicker of change. Flat calm. A daily struggle to survive. And so for every family, the person who managed to get out and reach another country became the lifeline. In this case, my father. I always thought of my parents’ pain in having to leave everything and start a new life. Only in reading those letters did I realize how little I thought about the other side of the coin. To those who were left there, waiting for news, trying to imagine what it might be like to live in Italy.
And so I discovered all the pain of my paternal uncle, a few years older than my father. In his letters, he always began by swearing to my father that they were fine, not to worry about. Instead, he worried about how my father was doing, and how he was struggling. There is one point in which he tells my dad, “I know you are pulling ahead with your chest“. An expression in the Albanian language to say that you are giving everything, all the physical strength you have.
Then he reminded my dad of how my cousins did nothing but talk about us and me, especially. They asked him about when I was going to come back and play with them and how every time he mentioned one of us, their eyes got wide, convinced that we could show up at any moment. How one day he asked them both to read poems aloud, and he recorded both of them on a cassette tape. He also tells him to enjoy some cassette tapes of popular music he bought him one day at the market, that they were new releases, and he was sure he was going to like them. I can’t stop thinking about the action of my uncle going to the market and buying something that will help my father levitate the nostalgia and pain. His brother’s good being more important than his own.
And then about that year in which everyone expected us to be able to go back for New Year’s Eve, but apparently we couldn’t. And my uncle couldn’t hold back the pain. He used a very strong expression in the Albanian language that is difficult to translate into others. I try anyway. He said, “we are getting blind from not seeing you.” Then he ended the letter heartbroken. “We were convinced we could see you this year, but you did not make it. Apparently, life never goes as one hopes.”
There are also moments of happiness in those letters. Especially in the ones after my brother’s birth. The joy of the news and congratulations. Everyone asking mom and dad if the little one is quiet or restless and nervous like me. Luckily for mom, my brother has always been a quiet one. (I swear, they actually wrote “nervous,” referring to me. I was two years old the last time they had seen me, I was nervous already).
What sticks with me from those letters is that layer of grief that accompanied the lives of my parents, our family members, and our people in general. I am reminded of the words Oriana Fallaci dedicated to Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Melancholy you carried on you like a perfume and tragedy was the only human situation you really understood.” Thinking about my parents, my family members and my people, I would say that they always carried the pain on them, honouring it in the most respectable way possible, always showing restraint, and preventing themselves from letting go. And probably suffering is the condition they have most understood, the one in which, absurdly enough, they feel most comfortable. It always seemed to me that in joy and happiness they were naked, without tools, incapable of the behaviour to maintain and how to live and enjoy those moments.
I carry with me the humanity of those words, the pain, the love and the depth of certain passages. I love writing, and letters are something that makes my heart tremble. The idea that a moment, a feeling, a pain, can remain forever on a piece of paper, drives me crazy. In recent years, I have tried to establish or carry on relationships through a correspondence of handwritten letters. Unfortunately, it never worked out. Looking back on it now, I feel like I sent those letters to nowhere, that I wasted that strong desire for nothing. The feeling is that my generation is not physically and mentally prepared for such an exercise. To set out to write by hand and wait days or maybe weeks for a response. My fault that I expected that much. High expectations of humans keep causing me delusions. Maybe one day I’ll stop having expectations. That said, I don’t regret writing them and trying. Reading those letters helped me to understand why I am who I am. Where the values I grounded my life on are coming from.
The thrill of holding in your hands letters received, or written years before, is a gift I wish for everyone. I would like to conclude by recommending you write letters from time to time. I hope you have someone to whom you can dedicate your words. In case you do not, write to yourself. Someday those writings will fall into your hands again, and it will be great to step back in time. You will get emotional, maybe you will cry, perhaps your heart will shake and most likely you will laugh a bit thinking back to what you were, and you might be happy with what you have become in the meantime.