Re-visiting my mother via five decades of handwritten letters
As a member of COVID-19’s most vulnerable age group, sifting through old letters while isolating at home has not been just a distraction — but an unexpected balm when calm is tricky.
The pandemic is taking me back in time.
A return to an era of handwritten letters.
In this computer age of the big delete — technology’s graveyard of personal texts, tweets, and instagrams — I’ve discovered an extraordinary way to re-visit, re-think and reflect on my life while isolated in the coronavirus era.
Located in the back of my bedroom closet is a 66-year-old repository of personal mail filled with family gossip; tall tales; advice; love; and news of the world — which basically meant news of the old neighborhood.
Why this extraordinary cache of hundreds of letters? Easy.
My family moved 16 times before I moved to my beloved Chicago in 1965.
I’m not sure why I’ve saved this collection of yellowing mail heading toward spontaneous combustion.
But as a member of COVID-19’s most vulnerable age group, sifting through old letters while isolating at home has not been just a distraction — but an unexpected balm when calm is tricky.
Included in this truckload of inked paper are letters from long lost friends, dead friends, angry friends, best friends and scribbled cartoon notes from 6th grade classmates I left behind in North Dakota in 1954.
But re-visiting my mother via five decades of mail from her has been a gift. Seeing her once prized A+ penmanship (cursive writing) — the script of a disappearing era — is looking at history. It’s beautiful.
My mom, a victim of Alzheimer’s who died in 2016, is given a second clear-minded chance to tell me what made her tick; share her feelings; repeat long-forgotten details about the four daughters she named Mike, Pat, Jac and Jo; delight at the birth of her first grandchild; and dad’s latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project in the Middle East.
It is also the diary of a woman raised on the treeless prairie of North Dakota during the depression experiencing days of unexpected loneliness in another treeless place: Saudi Arabia.
Mom reminds me once again that dad, an avid gardener, was the only man in their desert Saudi village whose house had a grass lawn.
Yet there were weepers in the lot; regret for her inability to come home and help her eldest daughter (me) plan my wedding in 1968; her love of the little desert dog she adopted; her sadness at having to leave her pet behind.
Then the letter of advice to her firstborn, which ended: “Remember, Mikie. Things always change. Nothing stays the same. You may be having one of those days but it never lasts. I love you. Mother.”
Then, in 1965, advice on my first and only teaching job: “Try to like your superiors better, Mikie, and then it won’t be so hard to do things her way. I know it’s hard for you but there will always be someone like that.”
When her mind failed, she signed her brief notes: “June.”
Sadly, there is no letter trove from my dad; only four epistles from a father who knew mom would write to his girls. But the ones he addressed to his “Number One daughter” were books.
These letters of long ago have also inspired me to find my childhood schoolmates who kept in touch until they forgot. Kids like me born during World War II, a four-year period called the Silent Generation.
I know their names. I know I will find them. I hope they won’t be silent. And we’ll have time to catch up.
And, yes, a little location help from technology and an email response will do just fine.