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Monday, July 2, 2012

Letters


Does anyone write letters anymore? I don't mean instant messages, electronic mail, texts, tweets, FaceBook posts. I'm talking about long, newsy, handwritten letters. Since I embraced email and then social media (though reluctantly, at first), I don't. In fact, my handwriting has gotten very poor from disuse.

I heard on a news program how the teaching of handwriting is going the way of the Dodo bird. Why do kids need to learn to write cursive? They keyboard (never thought I'd use that word as a verb). While I agree that today's kids need to learn how to type, or keyboard, I think they will come to regret missing out on the skill of reading and writing in cursive.

So, what triggered this topic? Back in January, I blogged that one of my goals this year was to de-clutter my house. Okay, I was more specific—getting rid of books and DVDs, organizing photos, etc. Sadly to say, I haven't touched the photos or DVDs though many books have found new homes and I may just meet somebody at the grocery store wearing my clothes. I haven't given up on my goal just because half the year has gone by.

Last week, I started going through boxes in the basement and came across one with cards and letters from friends and family. Oh yes, as if you didn't already know, I am a packrat. I save much more than I should—though sometimes with good reason, at least from my perspective.  As I went through a very large box that had been in the basement for years, I found letters written by my father-in-law and my mother when we all lived nearly eight hundred miles apart. They wrote because, back in the Dark Ages, long distance phone calls were expensive. We had to pay—yikes—by the minute. Our parents grew up during the Great Depression (and my father-in-law proudly claimed a Scot's penchant for saving money) so phone calls were somewhat short. They wrote letters instead.

Mom wrote about family—who had come over for a visit, what the other grandkids were doing—and about everyday things like her good and bad days at bowling, how her garden was coming along, her exasperation with a retired husband, and what books she was reading. When she mentioned books, a wonderful memory surfaced of how excited she was when she discovered romance novels. Feeding her (our) addiction to Harlequins, Silhouettes and Candlelights, we used to mail books to each other in a Girl Scout cookie box, which we would just relabel, reload and return. Not only did I get news from home, I got slices of life from her perspective. Her worries about my dad's health, her delight in receiving my sister's and my letters, her thrill at having two new grandchildren born in the same week, and the really rotten day when she bowled poorly, got a speeding ticket on the way home, was locked out of the house and had to climb in through a window (at age fifty-eight, mind you).

My father-in-law did not have much of a formal education. He had to leave school after eighth grade to help support his mother and brother. You can't tell that from his letters. What shines through is his droll sense of humor. And in reading his long—usually three or four pages from a yellow legal pad—newsy letters, it's like seeing again that kind, gentle man.

While I am so glad I hung onto his letters, my mother's have even greater import to me. Not just because she's my mom. You see, when my father-in-law died at eighty-nine, his mind was still sharp, his personality the same. Not so with my mother. She had Alzheimer's disease. My last memories of my mother were of a confused woman who didn't recognize her children, who became irrationally angry, who'd lost the ability to reason, who eventually didn't care anymore and whose eyes were most often vacant. Physically, Mom died at eighty-four. In reality, the person she was died much before that. They really aren't kidding when they call Alzheimer's "the long good-by".

When I read her letters, it's like my real mom is still here. I hear her voice in those letters. She wrote like she talked, not in any order but adding details in parentheses or within dashes. And I realized how much like her I am.

Mom's letters pretty much stopped in 1987. We moved close by so there was no need. A few years later, we moved away again but still no letters. We had email then and Mom, though she was always afraid she'd make a mistake and "break" the computer, loved hearing "you've got mail". How many of us print out email posts? I don't. Somehow, they're not the same as handwritten letters. Don't get me wrong. I love email, texting, tweeting. I'm so glad I don't have to wait for the mailman to find out what's happening or try to call when busy people aren't home. Instant news is great. But, in that onslaught of news, in that overwhelming deluge of information, doesn't some—most—of it disappear? What "proof" of our real selves are we leaving behind?

If I hadn't saved those letters, I would never have such wonderful memories to replace the last years of Mom's life. So, despite de-cluttering, I'll save those letters from her and my father-in-law. Maybe someday, my grandchildren will read them and in so doing get to know those wonderful people who are an essential part of their heritage.


16 comments:

  1. I agree, letters are an important part of our family history. Now that my dad is gone, I'm reluctant to throw away anything with his writing on it. His beautiful, flowing script reflected the artist in him, while his precise block print revealed his sharp mind. I'm a pack rat too, and my kids are on a mission to de-clutter my house, but I'm not going to let them touch my letters!

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    1. Good! I guess what I have to find is balance between what to save and what to find a new home for.

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  2. I so agree with you, Diane! Writing letters is an art, a piece of ourselves. I love the written word, love seeing words on paper, literally. There is nothing more intimate than a handwritten note, knowing someone took the time to sit down and write it. Where were they when they wrote it? What were they thinking? Doing? Wearing? Eating? Drinking? Letters are a piece of history, a piece of your family and friends, lovers, strangers. Okay, I'm a romantic at heart and I love letters. Great post, Diane! Thanks for sharing!

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    1. You really captured my thoughts, Jennifer. I guess I'm more of a romantic than I thought.

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  3. My eldest sister told me how much she enjoys receiving mail the last time I visited her in Florida where she lives in an assisted-living facility because her husband died of Parkinsons (he was held prisoner during the Korean War and tortered). She's a patriot who sends me crazy hate mail against the President. Nevertheless, I write her personal letters at least once a month to tell her how beautiful she is (looks 50 at 78) and how much I love her. Her birthday is on July 4th! She had her first year birthday picture in the newspaper, back when they had newspapers. So I write to her. But except for thank you notes, I very seldom write letters to others. See how I ramble... Rohn Federbush

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  4. You are very thoughtful to write to her.

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  5. Like Patrica, I had a small suitcase of my dad's letters, too. Cards and letters he'd recieved from his family. I cherished reading about their life in Alabama. He even had drawings from me and I miss him alot.
    I still save cards in a box in the basement. Maybe someday my kids will find them.
    Love this post, Diane. I regret the fact our kids will loose this kind of closeness.

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    1. After Mom died, we found a bunch of letters fr her dad to her mother when they were courting. So glad she saved them. Wished we had Gram's to him. Oh, well... Maybe this harks back to last week's post about the difference between men & women.

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  6. So glad you have those wonderful letters. My sister and I have many pieces of our mother and grandmother's lives. THEY NEVER THREW ANYTHING AWAY. :) And I'm so grateful. I have my mother's white lace baby dress. I have one of mine, too. And I have a 1912 valentine from my lumberjack grandfather to his bride, my Grandma, Izora. The letters and pictures are very precious, too. So sad our kids my not get our words to keep.

    All the best, Annette

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    1. Annette, that is wonderful that you have those precious things. As mentioned before, one of the reasons I have to de-clutter more is that we "inherited" the condo contents of 2 elder women who (like your mother & grandmother) never threw anything away. Deciding what to keep is difficult.

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  7. Diane, what great thoughts to share. We are purging so much stuff too. But, not the handwritten letters and such. Those are too precious. I'm fortunate in that my oldest daughter is a saver. She has scrapbooked a lot of our written memories to preserve them and is putting old photos my parents had on to the computer. Still, discovering a handwritten note from the past in some of that 'stuff' is such a gift.

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  8. Margo, how lucky you are to have such a thoughtful (talented) daughter. What treasures.

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  9. Oh, you are so fortunate to have letters and yes, they will want to be read by your children and their children and so forth. I don't have any letters anymore 'cause I didn't keep them. I do have a copy of a poem my mum wrote for one of my grandchildren. You've made me think about this and I'm going to collect copies of writings my sisters might have.

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  10. Good idea, Dale. Still, that poem is a treasure.

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  11. Diane, I'm so with you on the letter writing! I love to sit down, think about the person who'll receive my letter and then go ahead and 'talk' to them. When we were in Chicago recently, my husband took a letter I'd written down to the reception desk to buy a stamp, mail it. Holding it in plain sight on the elevator, a woman asked, "Did you write someone a letter?" He, not wanting a long conversation,said yes. "I didn't know people wrote letters anymore!" she said. He replied, "Oh yes, some still do and it still takes a stamp, which I don't have." She grinned at him, reached in her purse and said, "Take this. I love that there's a man alive who'll write a letter." He smiled, took the stamp and thanked her! Yes, he wasn't into a lenghty conversation, didn't reveal I'd wrote the letter but did tell me about her delight. He said he took the stamp just because she was so enthusiastic, happy to know 'letter writing' was still an art form and she was going to get into it again. So I'll continue to write letters and let him mail them...as long as it makes others happy and me, too! Cheers, Wil

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  12. What a charming story, Wil. Thanks for sharing.

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