We sat at the table and pored over the handwritten letters, reading excerpts aloud to each other. Three siblings and a year’s worth of our long-deceased grandmother’s words were a highlight of our trip to Cleveland. There was an occasional letter from our mother but the bulk came from our maternal grandmother, who wanted to stay in touch with her daughter when she and her family moved to Cleveland. At the end of that year, Grandma died, and so the letters were stored away in a box until our cousins cleaned out their mother’s estate.
Each letter was dated simply in the corner with the day of the week, like Saturday a.m. or Tuesday p.m., so we had to carefully return them to their envelopes to preserve the dates and chronology of events. Sometimes pieces of the puzzle were revealed in the telling. For example, my mother reported picking up the charm for Grandma’s Christmas gift from my aunt as requested. Then my grandmother wrote that my mother took the charm to the jeweler to be attached to her bracelet.
My mother was busy in her roles as daughter, sister and mother of eight children. Glimpses of the lives revealed in the letters were like cherished snapshots. Grandma would talk about baking and bringing the cakes and pies to our family dinners. She spent birthdays, holidays and most Sunday evenings with us. I remember the taste of her delicious baked goods, where she sat in the living room and her apartment, where we sometimes spent the night on weekends.
The letters validated memories, fleshed out others and provided new information and perspectives. Grandma used to talk to her snowbird sister every day during the time of year she lived in Buffalo. When she was in Florida, they wrote letters. This was when long-distance telephone rates were high and putting pen to paper to stay connected was common.
Who writes letters anymore? For me, receiving one is as special as writing one. It usually fulfills a purpose outside reporting ordinary events, like sending an expression of gratitude, sympathy or holiday wishes.
For everyday events, there is texting, emailing and posting on social media. I learn a lot about others and share my life through these mediums. But I wonder if anyone will comb through our electronic communications to learn about us and our shared histories when we are gone.
If so, will we miss the handwriting, the yellowed envelopes and knowing that our loved ones touched them before us? Will we drive to visit siblings for an overnight stay and spend hours remembering stories, laughing and tearing up while we read?
I picture us sitting around a computer searching for information. It may be more accessible, but will it be as valued? Reading the letters delivered us to the immediacy of Grandma’s kitchen table. She wrote these letters long ago, but when we read them, the time gap disappeared. It is not as if Grandma was with us at my brother’s table, but as if we were with her in her world.
While electronic communication transports us through space and time to visit others and we certainly use it to report ordinary life, I hope its emphasis on the moment does not preclude connecting and learning about loved ones from our past. Letter-writing is certainly a slower process than electronic communication, but it is every bit as mysterious and wonderful as it reveals life lived in another time and place.