New Orleans There’s one random phrase in Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick that for some reason has always struck such a deep chord with me that I’ve never forgotten it. One of the characters or perhaps the author, I really don’t remember now, speaks of “the unfathomable mysteries of life.” I’ve always thought that was such a powerful, beautiful and apt description of life itself. Where some might reply to a friend, “whatever” or “who knows,” I have often found myself saying, “Well, as Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, that’s one of “the unfathomable mysteries of life.” Briefly looking a minute ago to see if Google could find the context through their magic for the first time ever when I launched a search, there was only one, single solitary response from the internet, and it wasn’t from Melville, but someone grabbing his phrase without attribution.
All of this is on my mind as I sort through the myriad details and mysteries of finally having to resolve the estates of first my father, then my brother, and now, most recently, my mother. Much of the legal and financial minutia is soul crunching when you are trapped in the grip of automatons and bureaucracies both governmental and corporate. All of that is fathomable.
But there are some surprises that fall into unexpected places and fit with the unfathomable. Finally cleaning out my father’s desk before my son takes it as his own has been a revelation and a head-scratcher.
There are treasures. My dad’s Navy dog tags, pictures of the ship where he served and his shipmates, his certificate of completing radio training in Chicago at the Naval Station there in WWII, and a replica of his V-12 ID and picture from the NROTC at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.
There are also mysteries. His birthplace had been described as Tustin in Orange County, California, but finding his birth certificate it listed Santa Anna instead. Differently than I had always assumed my grandfather was listed as having been born in Yankton, South Dakota, and my grandmother in Sioux Falls. My grandfather’s name was Erdmann Jacob Rathke and my father’s name was Edmann Jacob Rathke, as they Amercianized the name from the German, but in my father’s desk there were elementary school report cards and notes ascribed to Junior Rathke for years, which was obviously what he was called in the family and later rejected. There’s now no way to sort all of that out.
He had kept one letter I had sent him when I was 20-years old from California after visiting my grandmother there. We had had a difficult relationship until then, but I was claiming to understand him and his perspective from my visit. He kept pictures that I had taken in 1964 at 15 on my first trip east to New York and Valley Forge for the national jamboree of the Boy Scouts.
He had also kept a half-dozen letters my mother had written to him after they had married secretly – and against Navy regulations. She was in Picayune, Mississippi then teaching history I learned, and he was stationed in New Orleans with the NROTC at Tulane University before being shipped out to Japan. They obviously met in the city on the weekend because some of the letters were on hotel stationery. Years earlier my daughter had found a packet of letters my mother had kept from a time my father had gone ahead to Kentucky and the rest of us were in transit from Colorado. He had written her every day. They were so much in love! Who were these people?
All of these treasures and letters were private of course and almost embarrassingly personal. They define them in ways I almost imagine and certainly understand from my own life, but are not part of the way I ever really thought of my parents. They had lives of joy, pain, and emotion that are unknown to me experiencing them as a child and one of their sons.
We think we know people well, but each life is a wonder unknown, and, quite frankly, “an unfathomable mystery.”