“We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.” —John Wolfgang von Goethe
The call came 13 years ago, on a predawn Monday morning in April. I don’t remember exactly what my sister told me. She must have said heart attack, but I don’t remember that either. She may have told me if my dad was at the house, in the hospital, or otherwise. I didn’t ask or give her time to tell me if he was alive or dead.
I think my subconscious knew, taking away any reason to stay on the phone for an answer to that question. It must have, because I ended up at my parent’s house 30 miles away, already knowing in my gut he wouldn’t be there.
Typical, I suspect, of most families, that it takes a death to wish I would have known more about my dad’s history. Too busy to let myself become interested enough to ask details, even knowing small bits and pieces about his childhood that should have prompted questions.
I remember a time I didn’t yet consider my parents were people with a story. I didn’t think about what it was like when they were raising kids, when they were newlyweds, or what it must have been like when a Carolina girl was swept off the beach by a Marine from dry dusty Kansas. Or earlier, when they were growing up, before they realized their parents were people with their own lifetime of experiences.
My coworkers and I recently had a conversation about greeting cards. Worth the money or not? We concluded most of them end up in the garbage.
With e-cards, e-mail and Facebook, our thanks and well wishes aren’t reserved for certain occasions and they aren’t as often in ink. Actual cards are a dime a dozen now and, in the midst of alternate modes of communication, are losing their place.
Even if the intent of the message is the same, I can’t help but feel sorry for future generations. I may just be resistant to a total electronic conversion, but haven’t we all had at least one experience where we pulled an old love note or letter from decades ago—our own or our parents’ or grandparents’— and felt the sentimentality through the fading postmarks and longhand script on worn paper?
I still have a pile of slightly embarrassing yet priceless notes from high school that my friends and I folded into special origami creations. Are those days really gone? Sigh.
Our newspaper recently published a pictorial book on our county’s veterans. The photos poured in from people of all ages from all over the county.
For publication, we scanned piles of candid snapshots, official service photos and everything in between. It was a hundred years of history coming to life, as they say. None of it was as touching as the handwritten letters mailed to family back home.
Today’s current events will create tomorrow’s memorabilia. That makes me want to handwrite a few cards, jot some more journal pages and be a part of a lot more printed (I am biased) newspaper issues, then tuck them away so history presents itself again when the next two or three generations (hopefully) trace their roots.
I don’t remember much from the days following my dad’s death. Life moved around us like a tornado, as anyone who has lost a loved one can testify.
What I brought with me through those years are handwritten cards with words of sympathy and memories written about my Dad. I keep them in a box on a shelf in my basement.
Every so often, I pull them out. When I do, they mean the world to me all over again. I like to imagine that one day my daughters’ kids and grandkids will discover them tucked away in a pile of my stuff and get a glimpse into their past.
And with any luck, be reminded that recording history as it happens—especially that of our own families—in a tangible way is worth the paper and ink.