Before we could telephone anyone, anywhere in the world for nothing (or a few cents). Before e-mail and Snapchat. Before texting and Messenger - there were letters. There’s a vast amount of information and stories to be found in letters. Take the time to read old correspondence and find some hidden gems. It’s the legacy of letters.
Letters as Stories
I’ve used letters in a few of my projects. One of my client’s family histories included letters from the Second World War and the 50s. (Ed and Dorothy: Rocky Road Romance) The correspondence was between a war bride who was living in Banff, Alberta, writing to her mother in England. One message, in particular, was heartbreaking. In 1953, the daughter received news of her father’s death.
From the mother: “I have not felt like writing I can tell you for it seems awful to think dad is not coming home again.”
The mom goes on to talk about the cremation service and how she received a note from the head nurse about how good a patient her husband was. However, it does not bring solace to the mother: “I could have done with him a few more years.”
The mother signs her letter with a multitude of x’s (kisses) and if there was more room on the thin blue air letter paper, I bet there would be more. The loss and the sadness seeped out of the letter and into my office.
My Family Letters
I’ve also been using letters from my family to flesh out the story of my grandfather. He died when my mother was a young child and there are not many stories from his Second World War years. Jim was a Sawdust Fusilier, the nickname for men in the Canadian Forestry Corps. While stationed in Scotland, Jim wrote letters home to his parents in northwestern Ontario. Thankfully, I can read his writing. (Unlike my mother’s handwriting.)
Jim had three brothers (including his identical twin) who all signed up to fight. But he did not know his youngest brother, Roly, had lied about his age to join the army. Jim found out in May 1944 and wrote home about it.
I don’t know if I told you Roly was here to see me or not but I did not know him when he spoke to me in Pitlochry (a town in Scotland). He said, Hellow Jim!” and I said, “Hellow You but I don’t know who in hell you are!”
It was getting dark and I could not see well and good he said, “Don’t you know your own brother when you see him?”
For my family, that’s a story worth its weight in gold.
So, don’t throw those old letters away. Read them. Glean from them what you can. What sort of letters do you have stuffed away? Tell me!