This letter has the same date as the letter from Chapter 2, and it’s by the same narrator—that is, Grandpa—writing to his son. The letter begins with a long, stream-of-consciousness description of the many rules that the writer and his wife (Grandma) follow in their marriage, from never talking about the past to changing the sheets every morning. In the middle of the list of rules, which range from mundane and logical to trivial to absurd, the narrator slips in the phrase, “I’m leaving her today.”
In Grandpa’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing, sometimes the most important parts of the sentence get buried deep in the middle of lots of other material that isn’t as relevant, just the way in which Grandpa buries his emotions deep inside his silence.
Grandpa writes that he thought he and Grandma could have had a beautiful reunion, although they had hardly known each other in Dresden, but it didn’t work. He describes the “Nothing Places” in their apartment, which are designated zones in which one person is allowed to disappear while the other person doesn’t look. Soon, the apartment becomes more Nothing than Something. They designate every area of the apartment as “Something” and “Nothing,” and they try to pretend that this will make them happy, but he knows that their marriage is falling apart.
The “rules” that he and Grandma make up for their marriage are an elaborate system of not facing their emotions and avoiding embracing each other’s company. Rather than confronting the hard truth of moving on from the past and living a new life together, Grandpa is still traumatized by losing Anna in the Dresden firebombing and he designates safe places in the apartment to counteract his memories of the world burning around him.
Grandpa says that he’s writing from the airport to his unborn son, thinking about Anna. He says that his father knew Anna’s father. When they met for the first time, they were teenagers, and the narrator was immediately in love. He walks to her house the next day, filled with self-consciousness, but she’s not home. There’s a photograph of a doorknob in the chapter.
The photograph of the doorknob here represents the comical missed connection of when Grandpa was attempting to court Anna as a teenager. However, doorknobs throughout the novel also symbolize Grandpa’s trauma and PTSD after Dresden, and thresholds in general, the points at which doors can be opened or not opened, at which connections can be made or not made.
Day after day, Grandpa walked to Anna’s house, but she’s never home. As it turns out, she was never home because she had been walking to his house at the same time every day, and never finding him at home, because he had been coming to see her.
Grandpa and Anna are like characters in an O. Henry short story, who are each so busy doing something for the other person that they miss what the other person is doing for them.
There’s a piece of paper from Grandpa’s daybook inserted—“Do you know what time it is?—and the narration returns to the present. He thinks about Grandma at home, writing her whole life story on a typewriter. She protests that her eyes are bad, but nevertheless, he convinces her to do it, and she writes diligently for years.
When Grandpa has to write a question in his daybook, the story is interrupted, because he has to stop writing about the past in order to communicate now. Asking about the time also jolts Grandpa’s mind to the present day and his current relationship.
One spring, Grandma pulls him into the guest room and shows him a stack of paper, which she tells him is called “My Life.” The stack of pages is completely blank: years ago, he had pulled the ribbon from the typewriter and hadn’t replaced it, and her eyes were so bad that she’d never noticed. Jonathan Safran Foer includes a few blank sheets in the chapter. Grandpa can’t bear to tell Grandma that the pages are all blank, so he tells her that it’s wonderful.
Grandpa thinks that he’s completely ruined Grandma’s life story—both the written version and, by extension, the real one. He blames himself for her blank manuscript, and the fact that she’s been able to preserve nothing on the page, although she’s been typing for years. Grandpa doesn’t want Grandma to be crushed by the prospect of having spent years and years in vain, and so here is another example in the novel of one character protecting another by lying to them.
After another piece of paper from Grandpa’s daybook that reads “Do you know what time it is?”, the narrator reminisces about the first time that he and Anna made love. It was in her father’s shed, which he’d converted into a library. In the yard nearby, Anna’s father meets them. Anna introduces Grandpa to Simon Goldberg, her father’s friend, and Grandpa tells Goldberg that he is trying to be a sculptor. Anna’s father and Goldberg talk about the war, and Anna and Grandpa go into the library and make love.
When Grandpa interrupts his own story to ask what time it is, the time of the narrative in his mind shifts, and Grandpa returns to the past and his relationship with Anna. The conversation between Anna’s father and Simon Goldberg represents all the turmoil of World War II and the Holocaust, but Grandpa and Anna live in their own little private world.
There is another sheet from Grandpa’s daybook that reads “Do you know what time it is?”, and the narration returns to the near present, when Grandpa is reading Grandma’s life story and pretending to laugh or to cry in front of her, when in reality, the pages are just blank.
The narrative again switches to the present when Grandpa asks for the time. Grandpa pretends Grandma has written something, even though the pages are blank, because he feels so guilty: he thinks that it’s his fault and he doesn’t want to confess the truth, much as Oskar doesn’t want to admit the truth about his own sense of guilt for his father’s death.
Grandpa writes that he’s sorry for everything—sorry for the marriage, sorry for being about to leave Grandma, sorry about Anna, sorry he’ll never get to see his son. In the chapter, there is another photograph of a doorknob. Grandpa writes that he will rip these pages out, put them in the mailbox, and address the envelope to “My Unborn Son.” There are a few more pages from the daybook with one sentence apiece on them, ending with, “You’re going to catch a cold.”
The photograph of the doorknob again symbolizes Grandpa’s trauma and his memories of Anna, his unborn child, and all he lost in the firebombing. The pages from the daybook show Grandpa’s side of a conversation, but the reader doesn’t yet know to whom he’s speaking, so the phrases that are preserved seem like somewhat indecipherable messages.