During one summer of our courtship my husband Dave and I were separated for several months because we had jobs in different countries. We exchanged letters about two or three times a week. I have saved them all and recently I reread them, as I have many times in the past.
The emotions, ideas and dreams expressed in those letters have been a real source of encouragement and strength during our nearly four decades of marriage. We were poor college students in 1972 so we couldn’t afford to call each other and it was long before the era when personal computers had become common place. The only way we could communicate regularly was through cards and letters.
A friend who lived abroad with his parents for many years told me what a treasure he received from his grandmother after his mother died. His Mom had faithfully written weekly letters to the boy’s grandmother in Canada, describing the daily events of her family’s life in a foreign place. The grandmother had saved them all and gave them to her grandson after his mother passed away. Although his mother was no longer alive to share childhood memories with him, he had her letters which provided a warm, personal account of his growing up years abroad.
At my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary, two of my aunts, who had lived most of their married lives in places quite far from their mother’s Manitoba home, presented a readers theatre that gave a humorous and entertaining look at the last forty years of our extended family’s history. Every line of the script for this dramatic piece was an excerpt from one of the hundreds of letters my grandmother had written to her daughters.
When archaeologists were working at the site of a former Roman garrison at Hadrian’s Wall they unearthed a large cache of letters written nearly 2000 years ago on wooden postcards. The letters were penned by serving soldiers and their families. They provided a remarkable look at daily life at the northern edge of the Roman empire about the time Christ was born. Invitations to birthday parties, samples of children’s school work, letters to friends that complain about bad roads, lack of money and illness paint a true to life picture of society in that time and place.
My husband’s grandfather Heinrich Enns was doing alternative service in a forestry camp in Ukraine in the late 1800’s. He found it difficult to express his feelings and ideas verbally but he was able to write such passionate and interesting letters to a beautiful girl, Gertrude Unrau who caught his eye in church one Sunday that he convinced her to marry him. Later during World War I when he was serving as a medic in Moscow his letters were the ones all the villagers back home wanted to hear read aloud because they provided such a descriptive and informative picture of the battle front. In those letters he was also able to offer advice and encouragement to his young wife who was trying to run their large estate alone during his absence.
This summer I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. The entire book is in the form of personal letters written by different people and together they tell an intriguing story that gives you good insight into the various characters and moves the plot along in an engaging way.
Personal letters are a special and unique form of communication, an important means of preserving memories and sharing information. They can tell a story. They help us grow and learn. Somehow e-mail missives just aren’t the same as hand written letters. My e-mails tend to be more business-like and less chatty. I think since the advent of relatively inexpensive phone calls; telephone conversations have largely taken the place of letters. During the six years we lived in Hong Kong I called family members weekly, but there is no record of what we talked about during those calls. There would be if we had exchanged letters.
I lament the loss of personal letters every time I look at this lovely heirloom letter writing set I inherited from my maternal grandmother Annie Schmidt. I admit I have done little to preserve the practice of letter writing. I write blog posts instead but they aren’t nearly as personal as letters. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law have hand written a personal letter to each of their grandchildren shortly after their birth, describing events in the family and the community at that time, their joy at their birth, and sharing their hopes and dreams for their grandchild’s future. Since I’m about to become a grandmother in just a few weeks, that is one kind of personal letter I must make a point of writing too.
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