Other than seven months in our second year of marriage, my wife and I have never lived closer than 600 miles to either set of parents. I grew up in Wisconsin, she in Illinois, and then Colorado, where we met.
We were faithful to stay in touch with our parents as we moved from Oklahoma, to Colorado, to Tennessee, to Texas, back to Oklahoma and then to North Carolina. Long distance phone calls were expensive so I consistently wrote weekly letters to bridge the miles and months between visits.
Each letter recorded the previous week’s events, which at our stage of life always seemed many – certainly more fascinating, important and original to us than to our families. But mom and dad always hung on every word and my mother was good to write in return.
At first, I wrote the letters in long hand, which to today’s teens is like code. Around 1980 our office moved from an exotic, spinning ball electric typewriter to early computers. Wow. The monitor itself begged me to write as it seduced me with the string of little green letters corresponding to the keys I pressed.
By the time children started arriving computers were more common and it was easier to chronicle the many initial, unique, and unprecedented achievements of Nathan, Erin and Austin – first smile, first roll over, first word, first step. I’m sure I went into detail ad nauseum. Eventually, I realized these letters were a chronos record of my children’s lives – and mine – and I started keeping four copies of every letter.
I wrote on different computers, duplicated them on various printers, was not consistent in type face, margins or paper quality. But my intention was to keep a file of these letters for each child and present them as a bound volume for a high school graduation gift – their life in print.
The books were such a hit the kids never pressed me for that new car I never offered.
They’ve used the books to reaffirm memories, to share with spouses – and eventually their children – something of their lives growing up. The first born – trying to recall for his wife his foray into independence at about age seven – rifled through the pages to the specific time he was running away from home, pulling his wagon, when I drove into the neighborhood from work, saw him and encouraged him not to be late for dinner.
Boyfriends, girlfriends, grades, sports activities, family moves, home building, job changes, awards and disappointments all are recorded in black and white in a bound volume, a ready reference for those mystical days when a fireplace, rain, wine and melancholy need a tiny, tangible toehold to step full blown into nostalgia.
Is our self-identity anything more than an accumulation of our memories?
We’ve moved a lot so to keep things simple we never clung to things. One moving team looked around our empty attic and spartan walls and said, “Mrs. Jameson, you don’t do clutter, do you.” I struggle against the tide of my wife’s tidying to cling to pool noodles of memorabilia.
Comedian Billy Crystal, in his hilarious memoir written upon turning 65, Still Foolin’ ‘Em, believes we ought to keep mementos that take us back to happy moments. Remembering them helps us to relive them, and who doesn’t like to go back to mental images that bring a smile?
The letters I wrote to my parents were subject to time, travel, USPS sorting and handling machines, the vagaries of weather, transportation and distribution. But each was a package of joy upon arrival.
Great historical biographies have been written based solely on the written correspondence to and from the subject. I join the chorus of lament that this kind of communication no longer is in vogue. It’s a lost art; a neglected source of historical reference, of anchors to memory.
My children have asked me to write letters to their children celebrating certain occasions, passages into “adulthood,” or encouragement in their Christian lives – requests I eagerly fulfill.
Perhaps one day they’ll come across such letters in their files or boxes of childhood treasures, pause and reread them, and whisper to no one in particular, “Ahhh, Papa. I remember him.”