Where have all the letters gone? Gone to emails, pretty much every one, I think. But I’m in the midst of a mountain of letters from the past. Letters to my grandmother from my father and uncle when they were serving in WWII; letters from my father to my mother during that same time; letters from my uncle to my grandmother (and my father) after the war when he was at college in Berkeley on the GI Bill studying to be an engineer; letters from my maternal grandmother to my mother; even some faded and partial letters from some relative of my great-grandmother written in the late 1890s. And even letters from me to my mother when I was a new mother myself in California for three years during the 60s. (I’m not counting the unsorted piles of genealogical information in letter form my mother collected but never organized.)
Does every family save all these things? Or should I say “did?”
You’ve no doubt deduced from all this that I’m in the process of clearing out a house. Yes, I’m handling selling my father’s house, and trying to make sure that nothing of family value is left behind or discarded. Even though I don’t know what I’m going to do with these voices from the past, when or whether I’ll have time to read many of them, what to do with them then, what will become of them when, well, when I’m gone. The ones regarding my uncle, who died two years ago, I’ll eventually send to my cousin if she wants them. At least those ones, and the ones from my father to his mother, had been neatly tied up in a bundle in the suitcase we found in the attic that contained things my grandmother had saved. The rest are sometimes bagged, or boxed, but pretty randomly, and I keep finding more in unlikely places. Even the tied up ones I’ll have to sort, because most of them say “C. Harvey” at the beginning of the return address, and both my uncle’s and my father’s names begins with “C”. They always just called each other “Harv.”
I’ve read some from every batch I’ve found, though, getting some feel for them—and hoping, in some cases, to find the epistolary version of some family tales passed down orally but supposedly involving letters.
Let me get more specific. Some of this is quite interesting.
My uncle was in the Coast Guard in WWII. He was too young to enlist without parental permission, but he was a bit of a hell-raiser and really wanted to go and my grandmother thought it might do him good (his father had died a couple of years before from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.) She consulted her minister and other trusted friends, and was told to let him join the Coast Guard because they wouldn’t be in any actual danger. Hah. His ship was eventually part of an escort fleet for troop and supply ships crossing to Europe and protecting them from German submarines in the North Atlantic. The story is that when he returned his dark hair had turned white, but I’ve seen photos that lead me to think that the process was just beginning then. His hair was white as long as I can remember, though, which would be when he was still in his twenties. On the subject of letters, his were of course sometimes censored, and he wasn’t supposed to tell family where he was or where he was going, but my grandmother told me that they’d worked out a code, and when he mentioned certain families they knew it told her more or less what direction his ship was going, and some other information besides. I’d really like to find some of those letters, but the few I’ve read so far aren’t the ones.
Then there’s my quandary over my father’s letters to my mother. Some are quite intimate, and I found a photograph of my mother that was intimate indeed—she was wearing pajamas, but what she wrote on the back was, well, touching. In any case I kind of don’t want to read many of the letters because they’re so private. On the other hand, I’d love to find the proof of another family tale, the one where my father, soon after joining the Army Air Corps, wrote to tell my mother that he had lost at poker all the money they’d saved to buy a car, and swore never to play poker again. And then before she even got the letter he’d sent off another one saying that he’d won all the money back. Yes, he kept on playing poker for many years, though just with friends for low stakes. I remember the cigar box in his closet where he kept his winnings, mostly coins.
The letters from my mother’s mother have been especially enlightening, showing me the real person that she was rather than the one I only fuzzily remember as old, and rather stern. Her letters are entertaining, and sometimes snarky, and sound like someone I’d liked to have actually known on an adult basis. I did know from hearsay that she was stubbornly independent, and the letters bear that out.
Enough about my very run-of-the-mill family. I meant to hold forth on the decline of letters-on-paper, and how much of our lives that might have been recorded in a tangible way may be drifting off into cyberspace. Not that there aren’t many people who keep journals or diaries in print, but the casual (or sometimes passionate) give-and-take of correspondence on paper is dwindling away, and that’s sad, in a way.
On the other hand, here I am buried in an avalanche of old letters! Just be glad I’m not writing about the even greater avalanche of old photographs.