The Voice of a Letter

MY family and I rarely chat. When we talk, we discuss weekend plans, work, menus for a birthday gathering. We seldom, almost never, talk on the phone. It doesn't matter if I've been across the country or overseas. We simply don't communicate well with the Bell. What we do is send letters. Letters about the weather, town meetings, the latest national news. Brightly stamped fat envelopes with photo enclosures, recipes, newspaper clippings, pressed flowers. News about each sibling, the garden, the dog. Through the post office I learn more about my family than through most of the discussions we have ever had. And, of course, I learn something about myself.

Last year when I was living in Uruguay, letters were part of my diet; without them I surely would have starved. Now, I am on the other end of the letter writing mission, writing to my parents as they've embarked on a long sailing adventure, after nearly 40 years of child-raising, car-pooling, and gardening. This is quite a change, worth writing home about.

``Do you realize,'' my mother writes as they sail down the Chesapeake, ``I have never been away from home for more than three weeks? Time I had some adventure in my life since all seven of my children have done such adventurous things.''

These letters reflect a change of vision. No more news about the begonia blooming or the dog discovering seaweed. Now it's Man, and Woman, against Nature. Her letters show me how much we're alike, and how suddenly she's realized the same thing. On a boat you have a lot of time to think, she writes. On paper, too, I might add.

My father writes as ``Captain,'' reporting on torn sails, oil leaks, dead batteries, and contrary winds. Also the drudgery of some of this? ... ``Just spent the day in the Dismal Swamp Canal. 22 miles of it.... ''

This adventure does not sound like fun at all. I feel for their sense of struggle, their frequent frustration. I watch the National Weather Channel to see how the winds are blowing, what fronts are developing. I forward mail to the next port.

What is this lure of adventure, this need to see the sun rise from another angle?

My mother answers this as she writes from North Carolina: ``I got up this morning just as the sun was rising. There was a low mist hanging over the water and I heard the first murmurings of geese. A blue heron was perched on a dead tree right behind the boat. ... Shortly after, two swans appeared swimming down the creek. A spectacular sight against the pink sky. The whole thing was a scene from a book.''

There is something about a voice that comes across in a letter that makes us pay attention to words that, within earshot, we may only acknowledge with a nod. Only in blue smudged ink on stationery can I hear her as she sits in the cockpit glancing at the geese. I can see her in another light now, as though I've stepped out of a painting and looked at it from a distance. In her letters I can examine her landscape, smell the dawn, hear the morning.

As it takes distance for a painter to see his study, it often takes distance for people to study their loved ones. Perception becomes sharper with space, a view.

Words capture that perception.

When I was a child I was taught to write thank-you notes for all Christmas gifts, birthday presents, dinners at friend's houses, weekend sleep overs. They began as mandatory lessons in etiquette, like saying ``please'' and ``thank you.'' The letters grew as my vocabulary and experience grew. I began to write of school plays, books I was reading, my brothers' escapades. Likewise, the questions, ``And how are you?'' grew more honest, found a voice. I wanted to know. And my letters were answered.

Often today I think we've lost the fine art of communication. One way to retrieve it may be with the written basics. Write. Read. Respond. It teaches us to listen.

I've learned to listen to my family, as they've learned to listen to me, through our letters. These written parcels of correspondence are not only active forms of communication, but documents for later generations.

I have a bag of postcards from my great aunt Rosa, written as she traveled across the Atlantic and toured European ports. I never knew the woman, but I know her wit. In Italy, she writes, ``Believe it or not, the horses wear hats!'' Later she reports to her brother from Scotland, ``The men here wear skirts. Should I pick one up for you?''

My great, great aunt Maggie carried an autograph book with her as she traveled. It is filled with letters, memoirs, verses, and jokes:

To Maggie When you are married, you must obey. You must be true to all you say, You must be kind, you must be good and make your husband split the wood. Yours truly, John R. Blauchard Boston, February 4, 1882

To read the next page, I must turn the book around:

When on this you sometimes look, and perhaps with a frown, Remember the one who spoiled this book by writing upside down.

Written more than 100 years ago, this book connects me with those ancestors who helped form the family character. I cannot help but think I am preserving and continuing the family legacy as I write.

Perhaps some grandchild or great-grandchild will treasure our letters as much as we treasure writing them, and preserving those from our past.

A Mr. Adams writes to Maggie from Boston, Aug. 6, 1888:

Fate do her worst,

there are relics of joy, Bright dreams of the feast,

she cannot destroy. They come in times

of sorrow and care And bring back the features

joy used to wear. Like the vase, in which roses

have once been distilled, You may break - you may shatter

the vase if you will But the scent of the roses

will hang around still.

As will our letters.

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