Lately I’ve been thinking about letters, because we’ve been reading them. Husband H. worked his way through a small pile his mother saved, returned to us after her death: letters he’d written as a young man newly immigrated to Canada from Paraguay and letters from the both of us after we married. He’d look up now and then to share bits of what we’d written, especially the antics and achievements of our kids (which we assumed a grandmother would want to hear). I was absorbed in Margaret Laurence & Jack McClelland Letters, some 27 years of correspondence between the well-known Canadian author and her publisher, eavesdropping on their relationship as it were, watching formal beginnings turn into affectionate — and frank — friendship. (Margaret Laurence is one of my literary heroes.)
By-gone letters pull us intimately into the moment of their writing and thus seem truer than memories. From a particular someone to a particular someone else, they’re deeply revealing of relationships. They’re wonderful, really, if you have still some to read.
Which brings me to a bit of rue. Some months ago, in one of my periodic attempts to reduce accumulation, I came across a large envelope of 1970s letters from my parents. Here their warm and chatty voices, the vitality of their early fifties (which had seemed ancient to me then.) Mom’s handwriting sprawled out the broad strokes of happenings. Dad typed when he wrote and said a great deal more. I re-read them with pleasure, made a few notes, plucked out samples, and shredded the rest. Then, Oh dear. Should I have just done that? I felt I’d obliterated my parents in some way, silenced this connection.
Well, I found another packet of letters, and now I see I still have dozens of their letters from the 1980s and 90s. So they’re not quite silenced yet. The dilemma of papers remains, however.
By letters I’m talking of course about the kind that used to come and go by post, and I suppose now would be the time in this post to act really elderly and bewail the fact that few, including me, still write such letters. But I won’t, because I’m actually not that bothered by it, and besides, we’re still communicating nowadays, in many other ways, and if my children and grandchildren don’t have inked-on-paper artifacts to access the past, they’ll figure out what they need and find it, retrieving from the Cloud I suppose, which they understand and I don’t. Plus they won’t have to worry over to shred or not to shred.