Many years later, a stranger treasures two sisters' letters

The Langdell auction barn in Wilton, N.H., fills early on the Saturdays of advertised estate sales. On a crisp fall morning, it's hard for me to decide between going off into the golden October countryside or sitting inside a barn listening to an auctioneer's hypnotic spiel.

On one such morning last year, the lure of discovering a treasure and the excitement of bidding pushed me into the auction's presale showing just as the wide barn doors were rolled open. I promised myself I would leave for that countryside drive if I didn't see a genuine must-have-it item among the dusty remains of a long-disbanded household.

I walked around the castoff chests and mismatched chairs, appliances with dubious electrical cords, boxes of vinyl records (Vaughn Monroe seemed to be a favorite), and partial sets of dishes that reminded me of my great-aunt's cupboard.

It was on the table of glassware that I found a crumbling cardboard box filled with old letters. A quick look told me they were the correspondence of two sisters between the years 1887 and the mid-1900s – 50 to 60 years of letters written in the most beautiful cursive handwriting I had ever seen.

I read a couple of the letters at random; they were in no chronological order. Some were in envelopes – a green 2-cent stamp in the corner – others were simply loose in the box.

Suddenly, the October countryside paled beside the possibility of taking these letters home to read and study at my leisure. I signed in with the cashier, got my bidding number, and settled in for a long morning.

As noontime approached, it seemed the letters would never reach the auctioneer's podium. But finally he gingerly held up the decrepit box and asked for an opening bid.

I raised my number, fully expecting to take home my prize for less than the price of the coffee and doughnut I had just finished. But from the back of the room came a bid for $5. Who, besides me, I wondered, could possibly be interested in these old letters?

I raised to $6 – and so it went, back and forth between my hidden opponent and me, until I heard myself desperately jump my bid to $20, $25, $30, $35. People around me turned to look. Was I crazy?

I never found out who was bidding against me, but as the runner brought me the box of letters, I was shaking to realize I was about to write a check for $55.

Still, I have not regretted my extravagance for, as it turns out, the sisters' letters have returned me to a previously abandoned path.

Quite unremarkable in their ordinariness, the letters tell of such day-to-day happenings as what's ready for picking in the garden, the state of "mama's" pleurisy, and an indecision about the feather to be added to a new hat.

But the essence of each woman rises strongly from the page through the loops and curves of her handwriting as much as from the topics discussed.

Reading through this collection of old letters made me realize it had been a long time since I put pen to paper to connect with anyone. E-mail is just so much easier nowadays. Although I would like to say I've embarked on a letter-writing campaign, realistically I know it just isn't going to happen.

I have, however, returned to keeping a journal – with pen and paper. However ordinary my day has been, I'm carefully choosing my words and drawing each one with a more disciplined hand.

I hope my great-grandchildren will want to preserve my journals, but if they don't and my pages end up on some auction table, I like to think that maybe someday someone will read my words and try to imagine me.

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