Voices from Long Ago
I recently reread some of my parents' old letters, and in the process I rediscovered the value of handwritten correspondence. It can be tempting to use the phone to connect with someone directly, but doing so robs you of the chance to speak to someone in the future—someone curious about family, about memory, about historical events. Someone like me.
For example, my mother’s sixth-grade classmates in Cleveland were paired with English pen pals in the early 1940s, probably to distract them from the war. She and Beryl (what a very English name!) wrote to each other for the next 70 years. Only one of those letters survives, but what a treasure trove of personality and penmanship the whole exchange must have been.
A few years later, my mother wrote to her cousin as the end of World War II was announced. She described the scene in Dallas: “. . . the streets were just jammed. Everyone was practically knee-deep in paper and some people (in the hotels) were slitting pillow cases open and throwing out the feathers.”
My father's occasional pen pal was his sister, who was attending college when he was in grade school. His letters to her, on 1930s children's stationery, are funny and endearing.
A message from his father, dashed off on a postcard while out of town, was equally sweet: "When I get home don't tease me about my funny bedroom slippers."
A packet of mail for my dad contained a collection of about 20 get-well letters from his fifth-grade classmates when he was home recovering from a tonsillectomy. Written on October 12, 1938, they offer a window into the minds of 10-year-old boys of the time. For example: "Dear Dick, How are you? Did the doctor let you keep your tonsils?"
Even telegrams—without individualized stationery or familiar handwriting—manage to convey personality. My parents saved a bunch when they were married, each a reflection of the sender.
Correspondence received from people you don't even know can be revealing, too. When my father retired, he received a surprise greeting card (surreptitiously engineered by his daughter) from a favorite comedian from the 1940s, Bob Elliott of Bob and Ray. The personal message in it was the cherry on top of a long career—and it put a smile on the face of this modern-day reader as well.