Tuesday, May 19, 2015


My mother loved handwritten correspondence. When we’d return home for a visit, she would leave a prodigious pile of missives from far-flung relatives by our bedside. The next morning we would sometimes have to ask, “Who is Cousin Nellie again?” Even with the explanation we wouldn’t necessarily be able to trace our relationship to the writers of the letters we'd read.

We’ve always lived in different cities from our parents, so we got to appreciate my mother as a letter writer herself. Not only was her handwriting beautiful – particularly as she got more proficient at calligraphy – her prose was equally fanciful. Her personal letters had an original style, full of insider references. Her prose was distinctive and arcane, sometimes almost secretive. I’d often have to translate her letters for my husband. I was kind of embarrassed about that until I found out that my sister had to do the same thing for her husband too. Nonetheless, it is wonderful to read her letters.  It’s as if her voice lives inside the sentences. Not just the sound of them, but you can trace the way her mind worked in them. She pirouetted around a story, rendering every person and idea somehow ruffly and lacy. I bet she wouldn’t have lasted a day as a reporter, but in the social pages she would have shone.

For years, my parents wrote ‘round robin’ letters to their siblings, all of whom lived in different parts of the country. They would write (some of them typed) family news, stick the letter in an envelope and send it on to the next sibling. The letters kept circulating for years. I don’t remember when and why they stopped doing it. Every couple of months a thick envelope would arrive and my mom would devour it. I’d read it, but most of the news wasn’t of interest – it was a lot of detail from daily life that a young person didn’t find very exciting.

We’ve saved as many of my parents’ letters that we could. Just this year, we put all of my mother's letters into storage, so there’s nothing to quote to illustrate her voice now. So I perused one of the family histories she and my father wrote, in the decade before Internet research was possible. Looking for a fancy and curlicue sentence I came up dry. She was apparently heavily edited by my father!

When I was about to give up, I found a gem. Inside the book about my mother’s maternal grandmother’s line, she had included the text of a letter from my great grandfather John Born, writing from the battlefield in the Civil War in June, 1864 from Georgia near Marietta and Kennesaw Mountain. Kind of puts things into perspective. The spelling is all his. He was the son of Swiss immigrants, and was fighting alongside his brother Ulrich.

“…Well we got relieved from the scirmich line sometimes in the afternoon  ordered back a little ways to mache some coffee  we had no breakfast nore diner so you may think we felt a little like eating something in the morning we moved behind  the Breastworks   we where not safe where we made coffee for there is where Jenser got wounded while we were standing around the fire  I must go now and eat dinner the Bois got it ready   I have now been to diner   we had Krackers Coffe and Sow Belly for dinner   we are now getting as much to eat as we can handy cook   Well Ulrich (his brother) the shooting on the Scirmish Lines is still a going on   every now a Stray shot coms a whishing in over breastworks but that nothing to fear….". (ref below).

These sentences are more like facebook updates, or tweets. Obviously he had to write when he had time. But now these details of life sound fascinating to me. The language is so different. I like the sentence, “every now a stray shot coms a whishing in over the breastworks….”.

Flipping through the volume, I am overwhelmed by the thousands of lives that are mentioned in this slim book. How many stories each person had, as well as how many letters they wrote and received. Hopefully, someone in their direct line has their letters and can still read their voices.

I miss getting my mother’s letters. They would often arrive out of the blue, for no particular reason. And then just last month, a beautifully hand-penned envelope appeared, from the wife of one of our nephews. It was a fanciful card – a colorful drawing of two cats riding in a sailboat under a full moon. She wrote only to say she was thinking of us, and wished we didn’t live so far away on the East Coast – so far from her Oregon family.  She could have e-mailed and she could have sent a message on facebook. But she took the time to write. I think I’d better write back!

Quote from  page 14, "The Family of John L. Born and Regena Borchers," by Dorothy Regina Hanson, Chiefton Publishing, 1997.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Last Day of Winter

With record snowfall in Boston and two feet of snow (to say nothing of the snowbanks) still in our front yard, it seems like we’re still in early February. But we’re not. It’s the last day of winter, and it's cold, only fitting to mark the end of a long and difficult one.

The phone rings. It’s my friend on the Cape.

“The red-winged blackbirds are back!” Lately she has been feeding a lonely robin frozen raspberries each day (thawing them first).  She recently spotted a Yellow Rumped Warbler in her yard, and later in the day she forwards me several photos of two young ravens who were begging food scraps outside a Cape restaurant.

After a winter of epic storms, record snows and polar vortex incursions, I am ecstatic to hear more tangible news of spring. The return of the red-winged blackbirds is a reassurance to me that spring may actually arrive after all.

From about the first of January, I mark the passing of winter, celebrating each small victory, like the sky is light at 5pm, sunset after 5pm, double digits of January and then February. I take a deep breath at mid-winter and start counting the days until it’s officially over.

For me, the birds are the ultimate harbinger of the changing seasons. I’m a musician, so I guess sound is my most attuned sense. So I listen. At first the birds are dead silent in January, but by mid-February, the cardinals, the song sparrows and even the finches are singing up a storm, celebrating the expanding daylight.

This winter of winters, the other usual markers have been hidden under feet and feet of snow. No crocus tips around Valentine’s Day, no snowdrops, no perking up of the Lenten Rose, nothing.
So it’s been all about the birds.

I keep a diary, kind of a journal each winter, tracking the snows and the temperatures and also, the signs of spring. Started in the winter of 2004-5, I now have ten years of data on these things. And so when my friend called with the news of the red-winged blackbirds, I looked back through the years and found my entry from 2009.

“3/18/2009 – 60 degrees (!)  Windy. Heard some red-winged blackbirds in the wetlands off Cushing Street, walking with Gwen. Lots of crocuses, started yesterday.”

Then the entry just below it…

“3/26/09 – Red-winged blackbirds – and a full robin’s song!”

So perhaps we’re not so far off track overall, the depth of snow notwithstanding.

But will the birds on the Cape come north when there is such snow cover? Perhaps they’ll wait for the warm temperatures to come north with a warm front, kicking the Polar Vortex north into Canada.
At least, I know they are on their way. It won’t be long now.

But then there is the entry from 2013 – the end of March.

“Many snowfalls later, it’s almost all melted now. Crocuses are up, daffs coming. Robins have been singing for about a week. It’s a slow-arriving coolish spring so far. Ponds and lakes high. On the first day of spring, we were getting more snow!”

It’s almost over, whether it’s one day or two weeks. We have endured, and like the lonely robin in my friend's yard, we just need to hang on a little while longer. For very soon, we’ll be rewarded with springtime glory.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Birdsong Before the Blizzard

So here we are with 34 days until the first day of spring. We in Boston have had three, or is it four, big snowstorms, and we are waiting for another one to start after midnight tonight. It will be a blizzard until the morning.

One of my favorite rituals at this time of year is to start listening to birdsong recordings. Having lost my favorite cassette from the 1990's, I found this beauty on Youtube. It runs for four hours and includes the calls of a wood thrush, my favorite birdsong in the world. I posted about the Wood Thrush last year in fact. How wonderful that folks are posting such beautiful things on Youtube.

So as I wait for the blizzard, with large cooking pots filled with water in case we lose power, I can dream of spring.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Good Luck with Your January

We have exactly 28 days, four full weeks, of January ahead of us. In coastal New England, while January is definitely our coldest month; the snowiest months follow. And even if February and March are snowy, January to me is like a deep dark chasm that must be crossed each year. We are standing on a rope bridge, creeping across it, enduring its challenges of cold and darkness, one day at a time. Not many cultural events are planned in January due to the fickle weather. So there is time for writing, thinking, and all manner of indoor projects. Our local AAUW branch has a wonderful tradition. We meet for a pot luck supper luck followed by a book discussion, on a cold night right in the middle of January. This year we are discussing An Unseemly Wife by E.B. Moore, and the author will join us. By month's end, the sun sets around 5PM again, proof that we've endured the toughest part of winter. So, may you pass January with good books, engrossing indoor projects, ways to enjoy being outside, and opportunities to see good friends. May it pass quickly.  How do you traverse Januarys?