Taming the Paper Tiger: The Archeology of Correspondence

20 Apr

“Letters, letters, we get stack and stacks of letters.” If you are old enough to remember this jingle from the Perry Como show, you are old enough to have been one of the last generations of letter writers. Long distance phone calls were so expensive they were reserved for business and emergencies (and even then, the telegram often prevailed, especially for news from abroad). Electronic forms of communication had not yet been invented. And, so, we relied on the daily mail to stay in touch.

Of all the forms of paper in my archives, my letters are one of the most precious. They tell the stories of friends’ and family members’ lives and allude to my own story. They inform me how I and others conceived the private and sometimes public worlds we inhabited. They remind me of incidents and people forgotten or never known. In short, they allowed me to discover the shards that when glued together tell me something about who I am.  Hand-written or typed; on floral stationery, picture postcard, or personal letterhead; amusing or dull; factual or personal, they provide clues to the senders’ personalities.

Originally, I was going to leave the emotional and time-consuming task of reading letters to a later date after I had disposed of easier to sort through items. But during the dark, cold days of winter on a week-long trip that required some indoor activity, I took a sack of letters from family letters written to my parents, most of them during the 18-year period they were separated from their families of origin by an ocean in the 1950s and 1960s. My parents were each one of five siblings. And did they ever write—letters with tiny handwriting on blue aerogrammes that folded into themselves with postage already affixed or longer letters on onion skin paper (so thin you could see through it), to save postage. Sagas of family ailments, afflictions, deaths, travels, children’s trials and tribulations, and frequent references to the costs of things. Some acknowledged external crises—strikes, weather, political scandals.  Some were better writers than others, though all were literate. This sack included letters from family friends, most of whom I knew. All told, there were several hundred letters in this collection alone.

This task was so intriguing and compelling that I delved into my other collections—letters from my parents to my late sister after graduating from art school when she, too, lived 3000 miles from us—a stunningly action-packed two years encompassing my mother’s return to teaching, an illness that forced her to quit prematurely, my parent’s retirement plans, my sister’s marriage, purchase of her first home, and the birth of her first child. I was off at college, appearing periodically, sometimes with boyfriend in tow. The letters fascinated, exhausted, and alternately exhilarated and saddened me.

As Covid 19 forced us to retreat even further into isolation than winter had, I moved onto other downsizing tasks but found myself drawn to another tub of letters and postcards, already sorted by sender—letters written to me in my 20s and 30s by an assortment of former classmates, roommates, boyfriends, work colleagues, travel acquaintances, and others who came and went so quickly I don’t remember who some of them are.

Written from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, they represent the true end of an era.  Other than the yearly holiday cards, often a carefully composed word-processed one-pager, why write letters when you can zip off an email, text, or IM or talk by phone  or through Skype/Zoom/Facetime/Whats App, at no extra cost? I think of all the history that will be lost, but the downsizing will be easier for younger generations.

I’ve saved the hardest for last—letters from my parents to each other (from a much earlier era), letters to me from family, letters from me to family (I retrieved these from their archives after they died), and copies of my own letters to others. (From the age of 17, I made copies, starting with carbon copies.)

So much for all this nostalgia, what have I learned, and what have I done with all those letters already reviewed?

Sort!! I prefer to sort by person and then by date, but you might prefer to sort first by date. (Bless the people who date their letters; otherwise, one has to rely on sometimes unreadable date stamps on envelopes or infer from the content.) Regardless, order always makes a large task more manageable.

Prioritize, especially if there are a lot. Hard stuff first? Friends you’ve lost track of? People you’ve known the longest? Chronologically, backwards or forwards?

Start with one small group. Letters are time consuming. Read, skim, or skip (those group holiday letters…...?) Your choice.

Make notes. If you want to remember any of what you read, and you have a memory like mine, you might want to make a few notes, and I emphasize a few, just as a trigger. I recommend doing this after going through a small group—about a person, a time of your life, something memorable. Only you know what is important for you to preserve.

Decide what’s worth saving. Maybe choose one letter from each person, only the most memorable letters, the postcards, maybe nothing! Save the original or scan?

Return to sender. My father had a colleague with whom he corresponded for a number of years after the colleague retired. He was a friend of the family, too, and I was fond of him. I found over 60 letters from him and read them all. He traveled extensively during retirement, and I found his observations fascinating. Through Google, I tracked down his 85-year-old daughter in California, who was thrilled when I offered to send her collection, as her father “was not much of a family man.” I also sent a batch from an aunt to my cousin who was recuperating from surgery. I plan to send letters written by friends back to them if they are interested.

Recyle. Otherwise, it’s into the recycle bin for this lot or into the shredder if they feel too personal. Letters from my parents to me or to each other, not so sure. Will cross that particular bridge when I come to it.

Follow-up. The pandemic has pushed us all to consider what’s important in our lives. I read the letters from some of the people who are no longer in my life and wonder what they are doing now. I remember how important they once were to me. Through the wonders of the Internet, I’ve located a few and gotten in touch again. I am content to let the others keep their quiet place in my history.

And I will continue to dig.

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