Among the family treasures Mom left behind were packets of her personal letters. The earliest ones were written to her parents in the months after she divorced my father. My brother was four; I was a toddler. Mom was preparing to marry again. Her new marriage would take her over a thousand miles from home. Usually she wrote to both parents but one letter was addressed only to her mom, my grandmother.
“Mother, I know what I’m doing so don’t worry. I am very happy…and I’m sure everything is going to work out perfect. (He) loves me and thinks a lot of the kids. We have very nice plans for the future. We are so happy when we’re together and we have talked everything over, and we seem to feel the same way about everything.”
A twenty-five year old daughter, writing to reassure her worried mother.
A few weeks ago my dear aunt sent me another letter Mom had written, one I had never seen. This one was written in southern Wisconsin and mailed to my uncle in northern Minnesota. It was written five years after the letter mentioned above. By then my brother and I had been joined by two younger siblings.
“The children are going to Sunday School here now at the Faith Lutheran Church….We have been going to church there too, every Sunday since they started Sunday School.”
I know my uncle cherished his sister’s letter. In those pre-Internet days when phone calls were only for holidays or emergencies, letters were how people communicated, how separated families kept in touch. Letters were eagerly awaited. Receiving one was a gift.
“We had another letter from Jim and one from his fiancé…Elizabeth. They are going to be married August 15th. She sent a clipping of their engagement and her picture out of the paper.”
Just as my uncle had when it was new, I enjoyed receiving this letter, so many years after it was written. It brought back precious memories from days gone by. It gave me a glimpse into our family’s history, written in Mom’s fine penmanship.
“(All of us) went for a picnic in Palmer Park on Sunday. Really enjoyed it. The (kiddies) went in the pool. We roasted wieners and marshmallows.”
This picture is from another Sunday, in another park, but the same year, and with the same people. Along with Sunday School, picnics became a regular event, an inexpensive way to gather with family, and enjoy each others company. I’ve had a copy of this picture for years but when I read Mom’s words about the picnic, it reminded me anew of those warm, carefree days.
In the letter my aunt sent me, Mom also wrote about my little sister’s illness, and of my step-dad’s still fledgling business, how much money he’d earned the week before, and his hopes for a city contract. These small details make this particular letter even more priceless, more poignant. More poignant still is what she could not write in it. Just over a year later, an unforeseen accident would take the life of her youngest son, my brother Tim.
I believe in the value of holding on to old family letters. While some details may seem insignificant now, in a few years time they’ll refresh treasured bits of memory, and serve as a part of family history.
The Internet has pushed letter writing into obscurity. For the wordier among us, it has been replaced by e-mail. Others rely on Facebook or Twitter for rushed messages. Twitter only allows 140 characters but a lot can be said in a few words. I can almost see a snippet from one of Mom’s letters tweeted to the masses “Baked a chocolate cake today.” Those words alone would remind me of her. Of course, it wouldn’t be in her handwriting, on the prettiest stationery she could afford.
I do like aspects of the new social media. I love the ability to almost instantly see pictures of my grand-nieces and grand-nephews blowing out their birthday candles. I love the shorthand way of sending an animated electronic greeting card. And I know how very much military families treasure frequent e-mailed messages from loved ones serving overseas. I do hope they think to print them, or save them in some manner, for the future.
Tucked away, tied in ribbon and stacked in a sturdy box are letters my husband wrote to me when he was stationed overseas. In another box are those I wrote him. We haven’t looked at them in years, but each one was received with as much joy as any e-mailed message. In old age we’ll sit down and re-read these letters written and mailed with love, and loneliness. Memories will awake.
Do you save old family letters? How long has it been since you received a handwritten letter in the mailbox? How long since you sent one? ♥
I miss letterwriting. When I was 7 we moved from Baltimore to California, leaving every single relative behind. Long-distance calls were too expensive so my only connection to my grandparents and cousins was a letter. I remember writing to my grandmas, so excited because I was writing in cursive to them, something I had just learned in school. LOL
Jill, a lonely move for a 7 year old…exciting, I’m sure, but so hard to leave family behind and make new friends. Such is America.
When I was in 3rd grade, we had to write a letter to our grandparents to learn letter writing. Many years later, after they were both gone, the letter I’d written to them was in their papers. Mom gave it to me and I still have it, written in pencil in my awkward, newly learned cursive.
I wonder, do they still teach letter-writing and cursive? I’d read cursive was going out of favor in education.
The other day as I was preparing for Thanksgiving and the cooking, I checked my recipe box and found some old recipes in the handwriting of those long dead but dearly missed. It’s exactly why I kept the recipes not for the ingredients, but for the memories of those who wrote them out.
I do keep old letters and I print out emails which I treasure, but probably not enough. Since my handwriting has become so awful, I’m quite sure no one keeps any letters I might write because they cant decipher them–so I type and send them. I do write letters to a friend who loves them and doesn’t have email but not as often as I used to. I type them now as often as I can as I know her eyes are getting bad.
Great post and very thought provoking–as always.
Handwritten recipes brings to mind my sister-in-law. When she redecorated her kitchen, she wanted something on the wall that would remind her of her own mother, and her mother-in-law. Years before her mom had handwritten some recipes on cards; she framed one of them. Next to it she hung a photo of her mother-in-law standing in front of the bakery the family had once owned (back in the 1920s or ’30s I think). A simple kitchen memory.
Handwriting does get worse as we age, but typing works. Nice thing is you can use larger fonts. 🙂
Hope you have a good week.
It has been about twenty years since I last sent a handwritten letter and about sixteen since I last received one which I guess would have been from my sister after my mother’s death. I miss physical letters. I love the immediacy of e-mails but chat has always been that bit too quick for me, never enough time to gather my thoughts. I still send real greetings cards though. It’s a sad mantelpiece indeed over the holidays with no cards on it. I haven’t got a lot of old letters, the one from my sister, a couple from my mum and a handful from my dad who wrote for the both of them when he was alive; nothing from my brother but I don’t think I ever wrote to him either.
Real handwritten letters seem to be dying out with our parent’s generation. Despite our appreciation of e-books and e-mail, holding a real book and real letter is so warming. Glad you still have a few from your family. Regardless of the message, they reveal a bit of their personality, and give a link to the past. .
“It’s a sad mantelpiece indeed over the holidays with no cards on it.” So true! Holiday cards, with little handwritten notes and sometimes a photo inside are the last hold-out. Can’t imagine Christmas without them.
Good to hear from you!
Deb, I love the posts about your family and the memories you have of them; especially your mother. Family is so dear! I agree with your sentiments about letter writing. Knowing how precious our written thought will be in years to come I have been keeping a handwritten journal for my granddaughter since the day our son told us about her upcoming birth. I want her to know the little details entangled between my heart and mind and I want her to SEE my handwriting to bring life to my words.
One of the most special gifts I’ve ever given my husband was a book bound with letters his father wrote to his parents (Jim’s grandparents) during WWII. I have a picture of my husband holding that gift Christmas morning; his face tells the story. Thank you for reminding me the value of the written word; it has nothing to do with publication for profit and everything to do with telling the our stories.
What precious gifts – the handwritten journal for your granddaughter, and the book of WWII letters for your husband. I can imagine few finer ones.
I’m glad these posts have meaning to you. Bits and pieces do find their way into my stories…nothing like inserting reality into our fiction…but you are so right, Rose. It’s more about “telling the ‘our’ stories.”
Thanks so much for writing, Rose.
What a wondeful post. Mom had such beautiful handwriting and I remember as she aged and became ill – she was quite upset that her handwriting had gotten so shaky. She was proud (and rightly so) of her beautiful script.
Thank you for the wonderful memories – giving us glimpses into the past. This is priceless gift!
Yes, I remember how upset that made her, yet she’d still try. She loved writing the letters, and sending cards for just about every occasion. Glad you liked the post. Enjoy the week ahead.
I have a few letters my grandfather wrote to my mother after we left Spain, but the ones I keep and cherish are the ones my husband wrote me when we were courting and he was deployed to El Salvador.
Oh, I agree Ella. Remember how eagerly you waited for a letter in the mailbox, and drank in each word? Separation during military service is the hardest I think, and generates the most emotion. Thanks so much for reading, and for your words.
Deb, I have a drawer of letters from family to me, from when I first emigrated to Canada, but I doubt my children will hang on to them the way I have, and none of mine were kept at the other end. Not that I am claiming they were of any value, pretty mundane and written in very small writing so they wouldn’t accrue extra postage. We were very hard up in those days.
I can remember the letters my father wrote to us when he was posted (army) away from the family. Once, he sent my mum some peat moss from Scotland in the letter, which he then went on to describe. Alas none of them survive either except in my memories. My father used to write to his mother every other Sunday, too, we didn’t have a telephone in those days.
And of course it is not only e-mail, but there is skype and even the telephone. They all mean no footprint. I can’t imagine how I would go on with my research of the Regency, if it wasn’t for the letters and the journals people used back then.
There is a whole genre of study called life writing at universities, where researchers look at the writings of ordinary people from the past. My guess is there won’t be much to look at for our generation and beyond.
Perhaps someone should start some sort of repository for family communications.
Ann, Please don’t rule your kids out about the letters. It’s amazing what a few years does to a person’s attitude on family and the importance of family history. There’s reality and truth in the mundane, and a sense of social history. Great stuff for the historical writer (someday!). I love that your dad sent your mum peat moss from Scotland. So cool!
You’re so right about “no footprint” with skype and phone calls. As a history lover, it worries me. I like your idea of a repository for family communications. Just now, each family seems to find their own. 🙂
Such a thoughtful response, Ann. Thank you for writing!
Deb, you bring back memories of all the letters I’ve written and received. I have drawers full of letters, special birthday cards, anniversary cards and anything that is written on from special family and friends. Some day, when I’m old and can’t get out and about I’ll dig them all out to look at. I’ll read them and cherish the writer and the words.
How neat that you have drawers full. We found boxes tucked away in Mom’s apartment. I swear every greeting card she received was in there. They are fun to read through again, aren’t they? Thanks for stopping by, Sandy!
Great post! I don’t think I’ve written a letter since I was in grade school. But this does remind me of a couple of years ago, after my mom’s funeral. My sistrers and I were going through her cabinets and found a stack of letters my father sent her before, and just after they’d married, when he was in the Navy.
You do have to wonder about how much history will be lost in this electronic age. By coincidence, I’ve written a post on letter writing during the American Civil War on my own blog today http://www.susanmacatee.wordpress.com
So priceless to find your father’s letters from his Navy years. I hope you and your family will hold on to them for always.
I loved your post on the American Civil War. My favorite time period – then and the years immediately following. We need to keep in touch!
Interesting. I have Mama and Daddy’s letters from WW II and mine from my Ex and I dated, and more! I save letters!
Now I’m publishing ebooks, something I wouldn’t have predicted 2 years ago.
Another letter saver! 🙂 So much to be learned, and remembered. The letters are priceless. Along with the family info, they offer personal glimpses into the past.
Few of us would have predicted the whole e-book revolution. 2 years ago? A year ago someone suggested I e-publish and I was mortified. And yet now…here we are. Good to hear from you.
Great post, Deb. Really pulled at the emotions. We keep and have so much stuff, I think we lose track of what is really important. I have some wonderful letters from my mother and stories she wrote about her times as a child and young girl. Priceless.
My husband and I didn’t live in the same city when we dated and became engaged. On our 10th anniversary, we took them out and read them to each other. Talk about emotion! My goodness. We were so much in love, and we were both so very busy (he in law school, I teaching and directing plays). We’ve now been married over 40 years and have periodically over that time dragged out these writings from our heart.
I remember hearing several years ago about how we needed to get our parents to make oral histories. There was sort of a movement that way, but alas, I did not do that. Mom’s been gone 8 years and Daddy a lot longer than that. Maybe that’s something we should do for our kids and grands. (My mother made both my daughters’ family recipe books, which are highly valued by us all.) I’m in awe of Rose handwriting the journal. My writing is very difficult to read now. Thank God for the computer, or I’d have never been able to write even one book, much less five.
Thanks for raising such wonderful family memories. Marsha
I guess our old love letters should make good inspiration when we’re writing our own romances. Maybe I shouldn’t wait for retirement to re-read my husband’s and mine. Like you, we were so young, and in our case, separated by an ocean. Thought his release date would never come. And here we are, 38 years and three grown sons later.
Yes, a good idea to pull out the letters. Should have done that when we were wallpapering our kitchen several years ago (something I believe a happily married couple should NEVER NEVER attempt to do together). 🙂
Rose’s journal is amazing. We were able to convince my mom to write down a few things in a book, but nothing like that. Such a treasure!. Still, we have her letters.
Glad you liked the post. Thanks for writing!
Deb, I love reading your blogs. This was was especially poignant to me because I recently went through old letters of my mother’s as my brother and I cleaned out her home. Her death hit me very hard and the letters were welcomed. I learned quite a bit about my family. Thank you for sharing your story, and I think I’ll sit down and write my best friend a letter to remind her how important she is in my life.
The letters do release emotions, don’t they? So hard losing a parent. I’m glad you found her letters. Little time capsules. Thanks so much for your words!
the last friend to friend letter i wrote may have been to summer camp friends over 20 years ago! time to start a letter writing club for the community members of this blog! someone post their mailing address, and I’ll start!
Letters to summer camp friends….lots has happened since then, I bet. 🙂 So glad you found my blog. Thanks for your comments, Emil.
After my parents moved to a nursing home, I had to clean out their condo. Exhausted and sad to scatter the treasures they had amassed over their long marriage, I nearly tossed out a rickety cardboard box without looking at the papers in it. Later, after both of them had died I found the box. Inside was a treasure of notes to me from my grandmother, or to Mom from me. A batch of them were like a diary of my tiny kids growing up. But my grandmother’s touched me the most. She wrote how proud she was that I was going away to college, adding she was sure I’d do well, because I was such a happy, sweet child. Just writing that makes me cry.
Letters last. I just received a thank-you note from my 11 year old grandson. And I just wrote a letter to my Navy Seal nephew, on duty in Afghanistan.
So good that you didn’t toss that rickety cardboard box! Easy to overlook some things; so much gets tossed when households are broken up. Glad that one wasn’t!
What rich memories for you, and your kids (if not now then someday; sometimes it takes age to really appreciate these things). I shivered when I read your words, so I can imagine the emotions touching your heart. Your writing to your Navy Seal nephew reminds me of my own nephew in the Air Force. Thank you!
YOUR COMMENTS RE: LETTERS, DEB, ARE SO TRUE AND HEARTFELT. MY HUSBAND WAS GOING THROUGH A BOX OF ALL THE LETTERS TO AND FROM HIS LONG DECEASED PARENTS. THEY COVER BIRTHS, DEATHS, WAR, TRAVELS, GROWING UP, STUPID THINGS DONE, HAPPY EVENTS, SAD EVENTS AND ON AND ON. HE WAS LUCKY TO HAVE SUCH A GIFT OF CORRESPONDING – MUCH OF IT IS LOST TODAY!
how lovely this post is! A few years ago I discovered 500 love letters written between my parents during their courtship from 1934 to 1938. The letters spurred me to write a book (“Steps of Courage: My Parents’ Journey from Nazi Germany to America” — since you asked!). My parents were both German and it was a time when Nazism was planting its poisonous roots. Their letter are an amazing combination of individual passion and historical upheaval, complicated by the fact that my mother was Jewish and my father Aryan. It was truly revealing for me to read them — letter writing is indeed a lost art.
Deb – What a beautiful post honoring your mother’s letters. I just discovered this post and your blog and am so grateful to find others who treasure their keepsake letters as I do. I look forward to reading more of your writing!