Thursday, July 6, 2017

Letters


In a world where communication is often 140 characters or less, a letter seems ancient. A letter on paper, mailed via the US Postal Service rather than emailed, seems prehistoric.

A friend recently blogged about letters written within her family decades ago. They were nestled in boxes of family treasures her Dad delivered to her as part of a downsizing purge of their family home.  Her blog reminded me of letters my Mom wrote to me during the years after I moved away from New Orleans.

Letters were among the few family treasures that survived the floods of Hurricane Katrina. A few years ago my sister sent me a box full of letters I wrote my parents and I read a few during my own downsizing purge last month. Some were letters I sent them in the 1970s and 1980s. Other letters I found in that same room were letters Mom wrote me during that era.

What I really wish I had were letters my parents wrote to each other. I assume they did write each other during their courtship but I've never seen those letters. I recall a few photographs of them next to a tennis court they frequented but those pictures are lost to the flood.

Letters and newspaper articles are a great source of history. We can learn plenty about our family from such writing. I have so many questions about the earlier years of my parents' lives, questions that may never be answered. My Dad wrote up a ten-page "autobiography" a few years before Parkinson's dementia began to set in. After Dad died, my Mother sort of started an oral history of her life and I regret not recording it. Fortunately I do recall some of her stories.

Sometimes we see our parents only as our parents, only as the adult figures who raised us, educated us, disciplined us. We don't usually see them as young men and women who may have had the same anxieties, fears and fun we had in our youth. That one picture of my parents at the tennis court used to make me laugh because I can't picture them playing tennis.

Another lost photo is of them on their wedding day, dodging rice as they left the church. Their smiles were bigger in that shot than in any other picture I've ever seen of them. Understanding their brand of 1940s and 1950s morality leads me to believe that night was their 'first time', if you know what I mean. That would account for the size of my Dad's smile and the slight tinge of nervousness in Mom's smile. Of course I'll never know if my speculation was correct.

At some point in his youth, Dad played piano. I learned of this in my youth but I never saw him play one note on his mother's piano. There's a family story about my Dad running along streetcar tracks when he was a kid. Naked. Grandma screaming at him to get off the tracks because a streetcar was coming. My conservative prude Dad???  Wow.

Mom was born on a farm. She and her three siblings sometimes played in cow dung. She didn't speak English till she started school around age 6 or 7.  I wish I knew how she felt about those things at that age.

The best story Mom ever told me was the one about how she met Dad. I knew they met at work but I didn't hear the whole story till she was around 90 years old.

Both parents lived through the depression of the 1930s. I'd love to know what that was like for them. I never will.

My sister says both parents were proud of my accomplishments in my career. I sort of knew that but I don't remember ever hearing that from them. Maybe that's in a letter somewhere.

I think I'll stop here before this post gets off the tracks too much. I also think I'll dig through some of Mom's old letters to me. Maybe there's more in them than I know.

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