FOR the last quarter-century I have lived more than 1,000 miles away from my mother. Yet I am close to her on Mother's Day, which is the time I set aside each year to read the letters she has written to me. As a historian, I have saved my mother's letters to pass on to my children, who in turn, I hope, will do the same with theirs. That's what families often did in America, leaving in the process a rich storehouse of personal history for subsequent generations. Of course, there's much more to family history: In my octogenarian mother's case, her letters shed light on the secrets of a long and good life -- even though they are replete with misspellings, malapropisms, and unpunctuated sentences. They also illustrate that good writing is not confined to the educated.
``I danced Thursday,'' my mother wrote in 1977. ``I had a ball. No man to dance, so what. Love Mom.''
She makes dear friends out of total strangers, some of whom merit the lead sentence in her letters: ``Honey guess what today I did lots of [sewing] work for Mrs. Rodine, and shook hand with Mr. Rodine. . . .''
Mom's best writing is stirred by watching television, which accentuates her stream-of-consciousness tendencies. ``At present I'm looking at the Super Bowl,'' she wrote in January 1978. ``Of course your Mother has been in New Orleans. I was in that jazz band room . . . . Mollie [my wife], I received a nice note from Debbie [our daughter]. She seems real happy, she got her pay. She said I'm in the money again. She can't wait to wear her dress she said I love it. . . . Dallas just scored 7 -- Now I'm getting interested in football.''
Mom can be subtle in her emotions, as in 1976 when she described my brother's master-of-ceremonies role at his graduation. ``Jr. is so much like his Dad. I had chills all over. He gave his age. He said I became 50 years of age. I was glad he didn't give mine. He looked at me and smiled.''
As for motherly advice, Mom's letters are overflowing. In one she counseled my son to keep his paper route (``. . . its worth getting up early''), and waxed nostalgic about the birthdays of all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She closed with a remark that is timely for Mother's Day, 1985, which coincides with the graduation exercises of many colleges and universities, featuring the coming together of families. ``Age does not mean much,'' she concluded. ``The way we think young we stay young.''
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.