Lifelines To the Folks Back Home

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NOT long ago, my mother handed me a packet of letters that she had unearthed from one of the uncounted trunks in her basement. The paper is brittle and yellowed, the ink is fading, and they are difficult to read. Some are quite old - letters from my great-grandfather to my great-grandmother, dating from the 1870s. Some are letters that my mother, a young wife and mother in the 1950s, wrote to her mother. And some are letters I wrote when I was working in Europe 10 years ago.

What the letters chronicle are little lives and our need for roots, connectedness. In our chaotic new worlds, we craved order, and we sought it in familiar places and faces. So, we wrote to loved ones about small struggles, little triumphs, loneliness and the pain of separation, the frustration of being a stranger, and the wonder of unexplored country.

The themes that link them are commonplace. They do not speak of great moments. They are concerned with the day-to-day ordinariness of our lives.

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Oh, there is an occasional nod to events unfolding. In one letter from my mother, written in 1954, she says that they have been told at their United States Army base in Vogelway, in the Bavarian part of Germany, that the occupation is coming to an end. And then she sadly notes that even so, it will be spring of 1956 before she will return home.

In 1878, my great-grandfather left his growing family behind in Rome, Tennessee, while he completed his medical studies in Nashville. It was a difficult decision to go so far away, although the distance was not great. He worried deeply that his young wife would be unable to cope in his absence with the day-to-day management of the household.

My aunt always refers to these as "love letters." Over time I have come to agree with her. They are, indeed, letters of love - deeply moving because of their simple assurances that all is well and that time will pass. They chronicle the details of daily life - how much to pay for wood, where and how to stack it so that the cured wood is easily accessible. They chart the progress of his studies and the growth of their children. And they recount, with a kind of humorous detachment, the trials of sharing a sleeping room with someone who snores.

He writes excitedly to tell her he is sending some geese: "I have bought five geese and two ganders and paid Sam Gilpin to carry them home, though I can't depend on him. You pick them as soon as possible so the geese will have time to feather before setting time. Which do you think I think the most of, you or the geese? I talk of them most just here because I thought perhaps you would not think of it."

It was all for naught, for his wife writes back, very sweetly: "I am very much obliged to you for the geese. You were so kind, but Mr. Gilpin failed to bring them. He said he would next trip."

Like all of us, my great-grandfather worried about stretching money: "Tell Matthew and Nathan [his brothers] to send me $10 by Rigsby next trip. I have been at more expense than I expected. I have been very saving, though."

It is an age-old worry. My mother, in one of her letters from 1954, lamented the $4 she had to pay a Red Cap in Chicago's Grand Central Station to hustle 10 pieces of luggage from one train to the next while she kept tabs on, if not contact with, three kids. And she chafes at paying 17 cents a gallon for gasoline.

"After two pair of shoes for the kids and a pair of PJs for Stevie, we're practically broke. It just takes it all," she wrote to her mother.

My own letters from the 1970s and '80s lament the same things, though on a much grander scale. I chafe at the cost of clothes in London and wonder when I'll find a permanent residence so I can get my own beloved belongings out of storage.

"Everything costs so much," I wrote in one letter. "And, I still don't have a telephone - it's the most inefficient service. I paid them a deposit of British pounds80 (about $175) about five weeks ago. It's outrageous."

The real clues in these letters lie in what is left unsaid. Actors call it the subtext. I hear my mother's anxiety, unwritten but underlying, about being thrown into social situations that are beyond her upbringing and imagination.

I empathize with my great-grandfather's irritation with a roommate who sleeps in his socks and hogs the bed covers. He merely remarks, he does not upbraid, but you can feel his discomfort. I remember my own dawning awareness that London was not Los Angeles and that Dunkin' Donuts was not an option. I didn't say so in my letters home, but I missed all of those things.

I value these letters; they tell me who I am by telling me where I came from. They were written as lifelines, assurance that although we were temporarily uprooted, we were not orphaned.

We lose something when we no longer correspond. For who will catalogue the ordinariness of our lives if we do not?

Instant communication has much to be said for it. But by its very instantaneousness it lacks permanence.

I'd like to think that a hundred years from now someone would be able to find his or her way into my ordinary life because I left behind a record of the way I found it.

I did not shape any momentous events, but I did tell my mom what it was like to drive around Hyde Park Circus in London rush-hour traffic, maneuvering between a horse-drawn beer wagon and three double-decker buses.

Donald Grant Mitchell was a not-very-well-known Edwardian man of letters. But he lives on because of something he said about letters. He called them "the monitors, the comforters, the only true heart-talkers."

And so, we talked from the heart, and to the hearts of those we loved, in our letters home.

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