Earlier this year, I found another batch of old love letters my parents had written each other while Dad was in college and Mom was back home in Kibler, Arkansas. I added these to their pile of correspondence my daughter found a couple of years ago, and the letters now span six months. During their long, half-year of separation, my parents wrote to each other every day, which astounds me.
Two months ago, my mother-in-law found a bin filled with letters her parents had written her from 1981-2003. They wrote her every week of her married life, but unfortunately, she didn’t keep the first 22 years of letters. Even without those, the stacks of letters have kept her busy for weeks, and she’s been passing them over to me to read.
The letters from the people we lovingly referred to as Grand and Mommama tell the news of the week – who is sick, who has died, the status of their beloved cat, Lucky, Grand’s endless outdoor projects, the food they delivered to a neighbor (sometimes with a recipe included in the letter), newspaper clippings, funeral programs, and random poems, old memories, and quotes – mostly about growing older. They both write - Grand's portion in black ink and Mommama's in blue. They write on the front and back of the pages, and in several letters, Grand says this is how you can tell if someone grew up during the depression. As my mother-in-law has passed the letters to me, I’ve tucked into my office couch with the box beside me and read for hours, sometimes with tears running down both cheeks. I miss them.
My parents’ letters produce an even deeper emotion since there are days I wake up and forget for a nanosecond they are gone. I hear my parents’ voices as I read the letters – my chatty, funny father and my worried, devout mother. They were young and in love, and the letters tell a story they never shared with me. I’m constructing a narrative from the words they wrote over 60 years ago.
All the found letters are priceless, not only because we love the people who wrote them, but because the act of handwriting a letter is becoming extinct. Entire books have been written about serious thinkers using only their letters: Churchill, Roosevelt, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, Sylvia Plath. What would we know about them if they hadn’t written letters that were preserved? In the future, will researchers be mining text messages and emails to find substantive material for a biography? I doubt it.
I can’t lament the demise of the handwritten letter since no one has received one from me for decades. But what I will argue for is the preservation of those letters that do fall into our possession. My mother-in-law regrets throwing away hundreds of weekly letters from her parents, but in her defense, she probably didn’t think she would need them. As it turns out, they have become an important part of writing her family history story. Storia is helping her put together a book that will preserve the stories of the Gilliam/White family for future generations. Using my phone voice recorder, email exchanges, and the stacks of letters, we’re compiling a narrative that will hopefully be interesting for her children, grandchildren, and the future Gilliam/White descendants she will never meet. At the very least, we are paying our respects to the people who brought us all together and acknowledging that we have a place in our long family history. And we’ve uncovered a few family surprises that make the book even more fascinating.
After this project, I’ll be writing the Jackson/Crawford family history, which will be a challenge, since my two storytellers are gone. Consider my situation a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks there is plenty of time. If your storytellers are gone before you capture their stories, pray you have a good memory and some handwritten letters. Or a publishing team that will come to the rescue.
If you want to create a book with your family stories, Storia can help! If no one has written the stories yet, we use prompts through email exchanges that will help you or your family member weave together a book-length manuscript. Then, we create your book through interior formatting and book cover design. Your book is printed through Lulu.com, and available for purchase. You can either direct family members to our website for purchase, or purchase copies to give as gifts.
We’re excited to offer this additional product and would love to help you preserve those family memories and stories. Learn more about Family HistoryTelling Books here.
Contact us to get started!