When I tell people I have a century of letters from my family—reaching back all the way into the early 1900s when my grandfather, Victor Hugo Wachs, took his family to Korea to serve as missionaries—nearly everyone is impressed. “What a treasure!” “How lucky you are!” “I wish I’d saved my mother’s letters.” These are the sorts of comments I get.
I know I am lucky; I know this is a real treasure. My mother, and her mother before her, saved the letters they received, and my grandfather even kept carbons of a number of the letters he sent. These are organized in boxes with folders separating them into decades.
I’ve used a number of these letters in an installation Philip and I did at Finestra Arts Space (a gallery in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building) a couple of years ago. It was a print, text, and sound installation called “Climbing the Crooked Trails,” the title taken from one of my grandfather’s letters describing his navigating the mountain roads on a motorcycle in Korea in 1910 or so. There are hundreds of his letters in my files, and more still in various archives around the country.
My mother’s letters saved by her mother are—at first glance—of a less dramatic life. There are letters written while she was a college student at Oberlin during World War II; notes from when she worked for the government at a Japanese internment camp in Poston, Arizona; about her time working in Washington, DC at various jobs; her factory work in Detroit and Chicago; letters telling of her quiet suburban life with her husband and four kids. In between the lines of these letters, and sometimes in the lines of them, is the understory of her life, the things she didn’t tell her parents in letters but would later share with me some, and that I would discover in her journals and diaries, in her letters to friends. Like: the loss of boys she knew—and some she loved—to the war. How she lost her virginity in an Arizona desert during what started out as a romantic, moonlit night, but was interrupted by the angry presence of a rattlesnake. Her affair with a married man who would later become her husband and my father. Their work as union rabble rousers; their affiliation with the Communist Party and the FBI’s interest in them during the 50s, the 60s. The struggle to raise four kids on not a lot of money, and my parents’ overwhelming desire to save (or at least change) the world.
There is so much to discover in these family letters, so much to laugh about or worry over, to consider in the light of my own memories. I am fascinated by the things I encounter: my great Uncle Paul’s deep crisis of faith right before he joins the ministry; my grandfather’s long and tall tales about riding his motorcycle and ministering to lost souls—with hardly a word about his own family, his wife, his children, the babies born while he was on these Korean roads; the lies my mother wrote to cover up her relationship with my father and the birth of my oldest brother before they were married; the anecdotes my mother wrote about us—my brothers and me—while we were children, that could still accurately describe our family dynamics and personalities today when we are in our 50s, our 60s; the long passage of time between letters in the 1950s when, for some reason I don’t yet know, she pulled away from her parents entirely, cut off contact until after my brother Roger was born in 1957. And then there are the small moments, the ordinary ones she describes from our daily life: fevers and parties, new clothes and report cards, holiday trips and Christmas presents, a broken furnace, a new car.
The United States Postal Service has announced its plans to drastically curtail its mail services. Post office closings, no Saturday deliveries, other cost cutting measures. No one sends letters anymore.
When Philip and I first met, we were both residents at the Vermont Studio Center. At this artist residency, there was a little wooden tray where the daily mail would pile up, and we residents would sift through the envelopes and packages hoping for something with our name on it. My mother wrote me letters then. I wrote her back. My boyfriend (the one I left behind, the one I had to break up with when I returned home because I had fallen in love with Philip) did. I sent letters to writer friends with long comments on their books I brought along. I sent postcards to my brothers. When my residency was over and I went home to Chicago, Philip was still in Vermont. I wrote him letters there and sent him care packages of Pringles and bourbon and books and photos. He wrote me love letters back with drawings and lines from poetry and sexy passages. When he went back to England, his letters came to me in Chicago on that blue airmail stationery, the type that folds into an envelope, the type you see in movies sometimes, in old shows on public television. I have these letters still (of course.) And sometimes, even though we are married and live together, we have occasion to write letters still. I’m teaching in England, maybe, or in Prague; he is out at our country house for a few weeks working on a project. Sometimes I will leave a letter on his pillow. Sometimes he slips a card under my plate.
We email, of course. And there is satisfaction in that. The instant connection, the quick contact, the immediate response. But for some reason the anticipation brought forth by this act (checking the inbox, monitoring my spam filter) is different from what I used to feel while waiting for letters when I was away at college, when I was doing work in Honduras in the 70s, when I visited my half-brother’s family for long summer trips, when Philip went home to England before we were married. What is it about letters that is so satisfying? In a way that email will never be for me, I mean. Holding something in your hands that you knew someone else held in theirs in another part of the world—is that it? Recognizing someone’s handwriting on the page, seeing the words they crossed out, turning the page around to follow the lines written up the side because the writer ran out of room at the bottom—none of this is possible in an email.
For some reason I am thinking now of the Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square in Prague. I’ve taught there a number of summers, and each time, I make sure to bring my students to the square so that they can see the clock on the hour, can see how the Apostle sculptures move in and out of doors, see how it has worked since the 1400s. They—these students who have access to movies in their pockets, carry instant messages in their purses, talk to friends across the world without spending a fortune, have gadgets that hold whole libraries and weigh less than a pound—are unimpressed. And no matter how much I tell them that this matters, this remarkable artistry and technology from centuries ago, they don’t buy it. They tease me, shake their heads and cluck their tongues at how incredibly old fashioned I am, how I am too easily impressed by something so archaic, so mundane, so (like me) old fashioned.
Do people feel this same way about letters? Are these hand-written communiqués ridiculously old fashioned? As a writer, I feel chagrined by this possibility, as I feel chagrined about the possibility of people not buying actual books and periodicals anymore. I am not anti-new (and ever-evolving) technologies, but I don’t want to let go of the old ways of sharing news and stories either. Letters. Newspapers. Books. In another consideration of new technologies replacing old that I read somewhere, the commentator said that just because cars were invented, people didn’t stop walking. But is this the right analogy? Yes, we still walk (some of us,) but we don’t ride horses anymore, do we? Is a letter a horse? Writing letters, riding horses—things done by a certain committed few.
This is another thing that is special to the letter writer: the ability (or propensity) to follow the tangents. Perhaps not always a good thing, but an interesting thing. The sort of mind spinning that one might be inclined to simply block cut in an email, or more likely, never spend (waste) the time writing her way into. (On some level, this is all about time, really, isn’t it?)
Enough of the tangents, then. Here is what I want to say: write a letter. Put it in an envelope. Put a stamp on it. Mail it. I can guarantee you that the recipient of the letter will be awestruck by your having done this. They will treasure holding this thing you have made; they will likely save it. It will not get lost in a computer crash. It will not be accidentally deleted.
Trust me on this: it will matter.
→Thanks to The Daily Show for the clip. And in case you don’t have anyone to write to, feel free to send me a letter at Columbia College Chicago, Fiction Writing Department, 600 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60605. Thanks for reading…and writing. -PMc←