Yesterday's Magazette

1 – Ancestral Voices

Ancestral Voices

By Madonna Dries Christensen

MadonnaGrandmotherSisters

Sisters, Alice and Elizabeth O’Brien. around 1898.


Many thanks for your letter, which gave me great pleasure, arriving just when I  was still dazed with the sun and the strain of managing a rather big canvas.

–– Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo

Family historians recognize that letter writing is becoming obsolete and that letters are valuable artifacts. Including letters in a written or audio family history brings deceased relatives to life for those who knew them and for descendants who never met them. Just as in fiction, a family history has a cast of characters. Letters let them tell their story through dialogue they wrote long ago. What might seem like mundane thoughts often provide important clues for researchers. The postmark on the envelope reveals where they lived and when they lived there.

Other than a visit from a loved one, letters are perhaps the most satisfying form of communication. It’s flattering to know that someone took the time to sit down and write to you. Some people save letters for years, unable to part with words penned in familiar handwriting. The scent of Grandma’s perfume might linger on the pages; a stain from Mother’s coffee cup; a scorched corner where the ashes from Uncle Ernie’s cigarette fell. Unlike a visit or phone call, letters have permanence. They contain sentiments and emotions that one cannot always speak aloud. Carrying news of the best of times and the worst of times, letters are tangible chronicles of people’s lives.

In the family histories I’ve compiled, the letters my parents wrote to my older siblings reveal priceless images of their thoughts, ideas, values, and personalities. The letters are the stuff of everyday life: the comings and goings of kids, school and church activities, gossip about relatives and friends. They show concern for two sons in World War II, and there’s humor, advice, gossip, good news, sadness, and grief. My mother mourns the death of an eight-month-old son from pneumonia in 1945, only 17 months after losing a fifteen-year-old daughter to kidney disease. She wrote, “I don’t think I ever put in such a lonesome week. I am just beginning to get my bearings. Everyone says it’s better to put away everything of baby’s, but I think I would feel better if I could see some of his things laying around. Oh well, I guess I’ll get over it sometime. I hope.” In another letter, after my father’s sudden death, she wrote: “It don’t seem possible it will soon be a month since your dad is gone. It still seems like a dream. I miss him most from 5:00 on.” [The time he came home from work.]

Despite the illness from which my sister Norma died, her letters to two older sisters show that she remained spunky, mischievous, and a bit of a gossip: “Oh, I thought of something else, something about Dorothy. You can imagine. I heard she quit school but I didn’t think about why she did. She’s taking after her mother, I suppose.” I also have a stack of letters written to Norma by classmates.

I send weekly letters to my sister, who has Alzheimer’s disease. She doesn’t react to them, but her nine-year-old granddaughter, Shannon, keeps the Sunday ritual of reading the letters to Granny.

My daughter writes each of her children a letter on Mother’s Day. They’re too young for them now, but they’ll treasure them one day. The girls, six and five, enjoy receiving mail, so I write them each a weekly letter, a  single page, with pictures, riddles, jokes, and family stories. Their mother saves the letters in plastic sleeves in a booklet for each girl. When their brother is older, he’ll get his own mail. The oldest girl likes sending letters, too, with her first attempts at printing, along with drawings and jokes. Knowing my dislike of snakes, she slips in a drawing of snakes now and then. She awaits letters from Grandfather, because “he is silly.” And she recognizes that, “If you get a letter you have to write one back.”

Those who relish letters have an advocate in Andrew Carroll. One might call him the patron saint of letters. He’s the founder and Executive Director of The American Poetry and Literacy Project, as well as founder of the Legacy Project, which preserves correspondence from those serving in American wars. I’ve donated a dozen of my brother’s letters from when he was a 20-year-old soldier in Vietnam. Carroll says, “Statistics can accentuate the enormity of war but not its humanity, and these letters are stark reminders of the individual stories behind the numbers.”

A decade ago, when he began these projects, Carroll read tens of thousands of letters from public records and private collections. He chose some 200 letters for publication in Letters Of A Nation: A Collection Of Extraordinary American Letters (Broadway Books 1997). In the introduction, he wrote, “Letters are sacred. From impassioned declarations of love to furious bursts of rage, they expose the most heartfelt emotions stirring within a person’s soul.”

Spanning 350 years of American history, the letters in the anthology were written by pilgrims, presidents, historical figures, slaves, pioneers, immigrants, prisoners, explorers, bankrupt farmers, soldiers in battle, activists, rock and roll stars, artists, humorists, migrant workers, and well-known writers and poets. The book was a New York Times bestseller and Carroll’s letter crusade has been featured in magazines, newspapers, on television shows and radio programs.

His interest in preserving letters began after a fire destroyed his father’s home and nearly its entire contents. Among the treasures Carroll lost were letters from friends. He began urging people to store meaningful letters in safety deposit boxes, and suggests donating letters of historic importance to archives, museums, and war letters to his Legacy Project. His second book, War Letters: Extraordinary American Correspondence From American Wars, contains some 200 unedited letters written during wartime, chosen from the 50,000 he’d collected at that time.

Carroll has two recent compilations: Behind The Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters––And One Man’s Search to Find Them (Scribner 2006) and Grace Under Fire: Letters of Faith In Times Of War (WaterBrook Press 2007). In order to compile Behind The Lines, Carroll spent three years delving into archives throughout the US and in thirty-five other countries.

In the introduction to Grace Under Fire, Carroll wrote: “At its heart, this book is not about war. It is about courage, devotion, honor, resilience, and, of course, faith. From the American Revolution to the war on terrorism, words of wisdom, humor, and hope written by those who have truly been tested by fire. It is about individuals who have encountered trials that rival the burdens of Job and have nevertheless persevered. Even if we are not in the military, every one of us wages smaller, more personal battles each day—against despair, sin, and doubt—and these letters are a powerful reminder that no matter how tough the contest, there is always reason for hope.”

Carroll brings us to the present era with this thought in Grace Under Fire, “U.S. troops serving today have more ways of communicating than any other generation of military personnel. Satellite phones, e-mail, and other high-speed forms of communication make it possible for servicemen and women in even the remotest parts of the world to talk or correspond instantaneously with their loved ones back in the States. But when they have something important to say, they often still put pen to paper and write a letter home.”

Introducing a letter written during The Gulf War, he said, “To a soldier, Marine, airman, or sailor serving abroad, few things can boost morale like a handwritten letter. These messages of support offer a tangible connection to friends and loved ones, and even a letter from a stranger can be a lift to the spirit.” And Marine Corps First Lieutenant Seth Moulton, en route to the Middle East in 2004, wrote to a priest back home, “I don’t think I can describe the excitement that attends mail call aboard ship or in country.”

I was ten when World War II ended, and my most vivid memory of that event involves a letter. My sister-in-law is reading a letter from her husband, my oldest brother. “He’s coming home,” she says, her smile and brown eyes aglow. The radio plays a popular song: Kiss me once and kiss me twice and kiss me once again, it’s been a long, long time…. “It has been a long, long time,” she whispers, clutching to her heart the letter that traveled through time zones and across sea and land to reach her in Northwest Iowa.


*To learn about contributing war letters to the Legacy Project, see http://www.warletters.com or write to P.O. Box 53250, Washington, DC 20009.

Vol. 36 No. 2 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Spring – 2009

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