Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, August 04, 2014


She kept them in her desk, but I'm not sure if I'm the one who found them. In the flurry of activity surrounding my mother's death and funeral, I don't remember how they ended up in my laptop case, but that’s where they stayed for the last six weeks or so, until Sunday afternoon, when I pulled out the case

There they were, jammed in the bottom.

It's possible no one looked at those letters for years. In fact, it's quite likely she didn't. Most all of us have old letters. . .somewhere. I do, and I don't look at them and wax nostalgic, don't even need them. But neither do I toss them. They document a life.

As do my mother's, the ones I just discovered. Some run back generations, the writers, the characters, long gone before her.

It is Sunday afternoon, and I am home alone so I thought I would write you a few lines.This one is dated—June 21, 1903—and addressed to “Deric,” who was my great-grandfather, a man who died years and years before I was born.

Edgar and Mabel are out picking strawberries,” my great-grandmother says of her children. Fourteen years later Edgar would be killed somewhere in France at the end of World War I. Mabel was my grandma.

We went to church this morning. It was a lovely day only I wish you could have been home,” Great-grandma Hartman writes.

I know this from family lore: Great-grandpa Deric was not kind to his wife, not at all. I don’t know the stories, but I’ve often thought the worst. What’s unmistakable within the lines of this letter is his wife's anxiety. “
If I had been sure you were not coming, I would have gone into Sheboygan over Sunday [but] I did not feel able to go circus day I had pain all week but feel some better to day it is so lonesome and we are afraid to be alone nights.”

There’s brokenness in the sentences, brokenness in her life.

I get so nervous sometimes and do not sleep well all night. I wish you would go in business again so you could stay at home.”

Deric was a travelling salesman, farm equipment, but obviously not home often, probably somewhere else, carousing. Before my mother died, she told me that one of her earliest memories was going into a tavern on Indiana Avenue, Sheboygan, and watching her mother retrieve her father from a bar stool.

Brother is still in Iowa,” my great-grandma writes. “He wrote me a letter this week asking me about the auction and how much the land brought and who bought it and everything else, but I did not answer.” What she says--and how she says it--suggests something shady I know nothing about. But my distant Iowa relatives tell me that “brother” was steered away from Wisconsin by his wife, who simply would not allow her husband to work for or with “brother” Deric. She didn't want her husband to become anywhere near him.

There’s more news, all of it spoken in a cadence that’s fearful and sad.

And there’s another letter with it, this one from little Mabel, my grandma, who was just a little girl in 1903, this one also dated June 21.

Dear papa,” it begins. “It is Sunday and I will write you a few lines to tell you that I went out strawberry picking and I found a quart box full don’t you think that is pretty good mama taught it was good for me pick that much. Fanny Wykhuis papa is dead and that to bad.”

A little more and then: “My hand is so tired I cannot write any more so good bye write soon,” and the signature, “From your little girl, Mabel.”

Great-grandpa Deric may have held on to these letters, but his character suggests that's unlikely. If he didn't keep them and bring them home, then it's possible these notes were never sent, a possibility which carries as much brokenness as any scrambled sentence therein. 

If they were never sent, neither were they tossed, which means it's likely my great-grandma kept both of them, held them dearly because of what they said about what she had felt. And so did Mabel, my grandma, a generation later. And so did my mother, who wouldn’t be born for another 15 years.  Three generations--now four--could have thrown away these letters, but didn't.

Even though these two letters, written on a Sunday afternoon in 1903, may never have been sent, they have been kept most preciously for more than a century.

When I hold them in my hands—and there are more of them, many of them glorious--I can’t help feel both proud and humbled, proud that there’s a story here, a story that’s mine, for good or ill; and humbled too, to know that in joy and in sorrow, I'm not alone, none of us are, to know through their brokenness that human life is what it is, for better and for worse.

That's what we feel in the psalms, finally, isn't it? In David's joy and in his sorrows, in his horrible fears and in his strutting pride, we see ourselves. We're all alike, we’re all human, we’re all looking for love, we all need a savior.

I think I'll keep them. They're good for the soul.

*A shorter version of this essay appears this month in The Banner.


Jiminy Cricket said...

And the sad truth is in this day and age there are no letters. Matter of fact they are trying to get rid of handwriting in the schools. Shoot, in another generation people won't even be signing their names anymore. All the emails today are mostly DELETED. What a shame!

JoMae said...

My Mom left a cedar chest full of all the letters received in her adult life. Very few that she had written, but a wonderful glimpse at family. Some in Dutch from my SD grandfather (which I can't read) yet all a treasure.

One day, in the nursing home and no longer able to read, she asked if I'd like to see some letters. To my surprise, she pulled from a drawer a plastic grocery bag full of envelopes carefully numbered and held in a rubber band. She asked me to read them to her. They were my parents love letters, beginning around 1926 soon after they first met while he attended Calvin College & Seminary. We kids never knew they existed til then. She'd had to part with so much by that time it is hard to imagine how she managed to take them with her! But she did and they are precious!

joanne said...

Ah, letters from the past. It is a sad thing that future generations will not have such treasures to hold, to read, to learn from. Maybe we should shut our laptops and write a letter to a family member? That perhaps they will keep and treasure? And inspire the same in them? Future generations that are being steered away from writing letters will regret it when it's too late. JoMae, I love your story too!