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.