Wednesday, June 1, 2016

THe Art of Letter Writing

June 1. The start of another month. Already one half of the year is gone. I really don't like that time seems to move so fast. I remember when my former husband used to go on deployment with the Navy. Long periods of time.  3 months, 6 months. This was before email, social media, and Facetime. I could usually expect a drunken phone call from some exotic port of call to tell me how much fun he was having. As you might guess, I was never real excited to get those calls. It was good to hear his voice and to have the kids talk him. It just wasn't the best way of communicating. If something bad happened, the only way to get word to him was via the Red Cross. These messages were reserved for "real" emergencies, not the icemaker flooding the kitchen floor, or how to remove the bar of soap the toddler crammed into the flusing part of the toilet. I'd like to say something like "young people today don't know how good they have it." But I won't for two reasons. First, it sounds like something an old person would say. And second, my husband was gone for long stretches of time, but never in a war zone.

Recently, my sister, uncle, cousin and I spent 3 days going through boxes of family photos and memorabilia. We pawed through photo albums of stern-looking people none of us could identify. We combed through scrapbooks from the time my uncle and sister were children. We unpacked military medals, old menus, a nativity scene made of shells that my grandmother made in the 1940's. We touched history. We told stories. We laughed and we cried.

One of the best finds I brought home with me. A shoebox full of letters, between my great grandmother and my great grandfather when they were separated for many months in 1911. None of us knows the reason she was in LA. We think she was helping to care for her father. The letters, back and forth, are written on heavy paper with a fountain pen. Some are smeared and hard to read. They are love letters in every sense of the word.

There were also letters from my grandmother to her mother from 1920-21. Grammy went to Washington DC to work for a senator. She also went to be close to my grandfather who was in his last year at the Naval Academy. Her letters are full of what you might imagine a young woman, away from home for the first time, would write her mother about. Clothes, shoes, dances, work, summer heat, roommates. She even hinted a few times that things with Clarence were not always hunky dory. A foreshadowing, perhaps, of what turned out to be a long, but tough marriage. My favorite letters told of Grammy and Grampy's late afternoon wedding shortly after he graduated - how the room was decorated with daisies, how the Senator gave her away, how excited they were to start their life together. And the one announcing my mother's birth in an army field hospital in Germany. At the time, my grandfather was in Italy, so except for another wife who was traveling in Europe, my grandmother was alone. Thinking back on it, she must have been as scared as she was excited.

Another bunch of letters were from my great-uncle to his mom about life at the Naval Academy. Times have probably changed a lot over the years, but I suspect plebe summer is as difficult to survive now as it was in 1921. As it turned out, my uncle got sick and had to leave the Navy. He spent a lot of his life as an invalid.

The final pack of letters was from my grandfather to his father. Again, we don't have the whole story, but know that the two were somewhat estranged. The letters were informative, but not warm. In this envelope of letters, there are three dated in the 1800's. We think they are to my grandfather's father when he was just a boy.

I spent three afternoons reading one letter after another. Even though I was sitting in my chair in my house, I felt like I was transported in time and place to LA, Vermont, DC and Europe. I loved not only the words, but the feel of the paper and the cursive writing. At times the letters were folded like origami. I had to flip the paper back and forth and over but the stories never lost their appeal.

I couldn't help but mourn the lost art of letter writing. I love letters. I'm as guilty as the next person when it comes to texting a quick question or emailing a short note. Technology has made it easier to communicate with loved ones far away. It's also made it harder to stay in touch. Touch being the operative word here. You can save an email, but you can't hold it and feel close to the sender. You can't stick it under your pillow. You can't cry on it or hold it next to your heart. You can't tear it to shreds in a fit of rage. You can't save the words for generations to come.

Last year I sent my daughter a postcard everyday for the month of her birth. Post cards are like text messages with a pretty picture and fancy stamp (don't get me started on stamps!). Even though the writing is usually brief and compact, it means the sender took the time to pick out the card, write the message and post it. It means the receiver has the fun of opening up the mailbox to a little piece of wherever the sender had been. I have to give it to my former husband, who may have not been so great with phone conversations, but never lacked in the postcard department. I'm sad to say there came a time when I'd moved them so many times, I finally thought why bother and threw them out.

I know .... shame on me. I not only tossed a box of cards, but I tossed a part of our family history. I tossed the opportunity for my children's children's children to discover a hidden treasure in a stinky old cedar chest. To know about the places a distant grandfather visited. To lace together bits and pieces of family stories.

The Japanese art of de-cluttering has become popular lately. I'm pretty good at getting rid of things when I'm in the mood. While it feels good in the moment, I often regret it. That's why I'm holding on to my mother's silver tea set and my grandmother's sterling flatware (that she described to her mom in one of those letters) and old photo albums filled with people no one knows anymore. My children have no need or desire for them.  So they sit under lock and key, the metal tarnishing. How can a place serving of silverware or china tell a story? Is history in the eye of the beholder? Is a letter only worth the paper it's written on? I wonder?

I'm going to challenge myself to write a letter a day for the next month. What about you?
Merry ME

1 comment:

Debbie said...

Keep that silver and all the dishes....one day they really will matter to others. You are so lucky to find all the old letters. Here it's old postcards and photos and yes they do tell a story. So many stories get lost because they were told but never written down.

And a letter in the mail.......priceless.......keep an eye on yours.