When was the last time you wrote a letter? Not with a keyboard or a touch pad on your phone, but a handwritten letter using pen and paper, then fold it into an envelope, affix a stamp and send it on its way?
The last time I came even close to that was scribbling a two-sentence note in a greeting card. And marveled at how ugly my handwriting has become.
Back when I was in college (yes, it was many moons ago), one of my BFF’s and I used to write each other lengthy letters – each was the length of a novelette – then mailed them back and forth to each other, at least 2-3 times a month, if not weekly. I wonder now what on earth we possibly could have to say that would fill those pages, how I possibly found the time, and how I didn’t get hand cramps. Of course back then the only option for calling each other was to use one of the dorm phones on the first floor, but it would have been a long-distance call. Several years later, when I had begun a distance relationship with my now-hubby, there were love letters written back and forth. Now the “written word” lives in the form of texts, emails or longer digital forms like this blog.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of visiting my Aunt, and spending some time going through some old family treasures she had unearthed. Within the piles were letters. Many, many letters that my grandmother (my father’s mother) had kept in her desk for decades. Letters, folded, still in envelopes, tucked away, that had remained in various drawers of an antique desk until recently found. Some were letters her mother had written to her when she was traveling. Others were letters from family friends. The letters that most amazed me were a whole stack that my grandmother had written to her brother when she was a teenager and he was in France during the last couple of years of WW1, and even more impressive were several we found folded up together that were between two ancestors back in the 1880’s. Some of the handwriting is difficult to decipher, but there in our hands were tangible pieces of history. My sister-in-law and I divided up the letters so with time we can sort and read through, glean any family information or just interesting tidbits, and then preserve the best ones.
The topics covered in the letters may not be of any major historic significance. The few I have read so far between sister and brother at war are mostly about her day-to-day life, if she’d be allowed to go visit a friend, and how excited they were each time they received a letter from him (unfortunately, none of those were in the stack). Yet to me, they provide a peek into the very personal life of a grandmother I never knew, as she passed before I was born – as well as a glimpse of how life was for a young woman in 1917. My ancestors held a pen in their hand, and wrote on that very same paper I was holding. They sent them out, hoping they’d reach their destination, not sure how long they would take to arrive. (Funny how history does repeat in some ways!) Yet, unlike now, those letters were the only form of communication. They couldn’t pick of the phone and call. They couldn’t text “hey how are you” or catch up on Facebook.
Along with the letters, we found something I adore even more: old photos. There is something about the magical beauty of black and white printed photos from decades ago. They carry a certain beauty and mystery. Most we found dated back to the 1930’s – 40’s, along with a few that were far older – formal portraits of ancestors. In those days, being photographed was an event. The generations before us didn’t take a dozen selfies, choose their favorite and post it on Snapchat only to have it disappear in minutes. Portraits and family photos were planned in advance, the people involved dressed in their best attire (yes, I saw my dad as a boy trying to look happy in wool shorts) and a photographer did their best to capture the essence of the day – then everyone waited weeks to see the results. So photographs were not trivially wasted on subject matter like what you are eating for dinner or 1,000 photos of your dog. Yet in many ways, I enjoy them more than the colorful, crazy and digitally enhanced photos we all take on a daily basis and get to share immediately.
The drawback, of course, is it didn’t dawn on most people in those days to label the back of the photos. Once they had the results, they framed them for display, or possibly put some aside in a desk drawer (thanks grandma). They certainly knew who was in each photo, so why take the time to indicate a date and identify people? I’m sure they had no idea that 70 years later some great granddaughter would be holding them in her hand and wondering who’s who, where were they, and what was happening. Thankfully, between the group of us this weekend, we were able to identify most of the people in the images, and approximate dates. Some still remain a mystery. But we will scan them so they can be shared among all the cousins, and find an appropriate way to preserve them, just like the letters.
My BFF and I are scrapbookers. We print out the best of the photos we take, and create arts ‘n crafts kinds of pages with them, labeled with brief commentary, names and dates. I may never truly catch up (I’m still working on photos from 6 years ago), but it makes us feel good that we are preserving them in a way that makes them fun to look at and browse. They are big and clunky, and I have warned my son that he better build an extension on his future home to store all of the scrapbooks he will inherit from me. He doesn’t look too thrilled.
I wonder about our future generations, and how they will be able to access “letters” and photos. With the way technology advances, the systems we use now will be far outdated. Will there be a veritable “microfiche” way to read emails and blogs? Will photos currently living on smartphones and “in the cloud” still be available to view or download or print? Or will they just be somehow transferred into microchips in our brains to be internally viewed? Who knows. I do hope that somehow the stories of our lives now will be preserved in some way for future generations. I am sad that I have missed so many stories from the generations before me. I wish I had asked more questions, and recorded more anecdotes from my parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Geneology and family tress can be fascinating – finding out who your ancestors were and where they came from seems to be gaining in popularity, and I’m glad for that. But it is the personal stories I crave. Long or short, thought-provoking or funny, they are all significant to me. The story of how my Aunt wanted to stand next to my Uncle in a grade school photo because she thought he was cute, to how my grandmother saved leftover candles to send to my father on the front lines of the Korean war so the soldiers could use them for light, to how my dad sat in a hotel room in Japan for hours during his one leave during the war, waiting for a call to go through to his fiancé, my mom – the one and only time they spoke while he was away, to learning my grandmother volunteered for the Red Cross Motor Corp… I feel each, personally, in my soul.
The stories, letters and images from the past help us feel connected to those who somehow, in some way, led to creating who each of us is today. Just as who we are and what we do, the stories we create now, will someday be the history someone looks back on.
So go ahead, pick up a pen, write a letter in your own handwriting, even if it is messy. Take a photo, print it, and label it. You never know, someday your great granddaughter may be holding it in awe.