letters from the past

In 1968, my father developed a respiratory illness that led my parents to decide – once again – to move to the dry heat of Arizona. It was our fourth time in 10 years to pack what we could in the station wagon and small trailer and head west to look for a job, a house and a new life. The first three times we did not stay.

That fourth time we stayed. We stayed through the inevitable misery of homesickness followed our move. We stayed when my dad talked about returning to New York. We stayed because my mother refused to go. As she explained in a letter to my grandmother, “I wouldn’t mind being there either for lots of reasons, but I know that the road would just turn back here again for health reasons.”

They stayed, but a part of my mother went back to New York in her stream of thought letters. As she wrote, “I thought seriously of calling yesterday – but thought I might better write today – and when you talk on the phone you get time conscious and think about money rolling around. Paper doesn’t cost much.”

If it had been 2008, instead of 1968, she could have afforded to call. But it was 1968, the minimum wage was $1.60 per hour and the cost of a three-minute phone call at the phone booth was $1.10. She did not have a computer, e-mail, instant messenger or a cell phone.

She had a pen and a pad of letter paper. When she wanted to talk with her mother, she didn’t send a text message, she grabbed a pen and paper and wrote.

After she made sure my little brother left for his early morning paper route, she wrote “It’s almost 9:30 a.m. there, so you see it isn’t too early for a morning chat!”
At 10 a.m. she jotted down a couple lines during a short lull at work. In the evening she sat at the kitchen table between loads of laundry and noted that everyone else was reading a book or watching television. At 11 p.m. she closed, “Well, it’s past my bedtime.”

She wrote letters twice weekly to both my grandmothers. In-between she wrote letters to friends, former co-workers and other family members. Most of those letters with their six-cent stamps did not survive, but my grandmother neatly clipped open the end of each envelope, slid the letter out to read and restored it to the envelope afterwards. A bundle of those letters from 1968 and 1969 have survived.

I don’t know what Mom wrote to other people, but to her mother she wrote lengthy letters, some more than 2,000 words long. She wrote pages and pages of little details about her family – where we went to school, our classes, how much our school books cost and the type of gym uniforms we had to have, a funny conversation at work and that she hung the dark clothes on the line over night so they would not fade. Many of the letters begin, “not much news” which she follows with the day’s temperature, a description of the house where we lived or an event at work.

She wrote the little things she would have said if she had been sitting at the kitchen table chatting with her mother. She thanked her mother for clippings from the local paper – it kept her up on news of people she knew. She answered Grandma’s questions. She wrote what she knew and what she wanted to read. She wrote without worrying about niggling rules for sentence structure. She made mistakes in spelling – but she wrote. And because she wrote – and because my grandmother saved those first letters – 40 years later, when I am closer to the age of my paternal grandparents, I catch glimpses of my mother’s life at the age of our oldest children.

Through her hours with pen in hand and my grandmother’s proclivity to save letters, I catch a glimpse of my mother chatting at the kitchen table with my grandmother. They are an unexpected investment of time that has survived the decades.