This is for all of you out there who rely solely on email for communication. A reminder to take pen in hand once in awhile. Your children and grandchildren may thank you for it down the road!
Of Packrats, Mothers-in-law, and the Lost Art of Letter Writing (written April 15, 2006)
I have also come to know Tom’s parents over the years we have been together, but not in the traditional ways. We haven’t had dinner together or visited in each others homes. We haven’t laughed together at stories from Tom’s childhood. Tom was nine years old when his father died, and 45 when his mother passed. They were both in their late thirties when he, their only child, was born. I met his mother once shortly after our relationship began. She was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease and living in a nursing home in the small South Carolina town where she raised her son to become the man I fell in love with. He introduced me to her as he rubbed her back and shoulders; her eyes seemed to move a bit behind their closed lids when he told her that he loved me. I stepped outside and watched through the window as Tom and his son, Craig, spoke to her with love about their current lives and memories of their times with her. As they spoke, they held her hands, and stroked her face, and my love for them grew.
But that’s not the Mary Hood Wright I have come to know over the years. I have never heard her speak but I know her through her own words. You see, to my good fortune, the members of Mary’s family of origin, are packrats! And probably the worst of the lot is her youngest sister, Betty. Betty and her husband Harry had no children, and lived for over 40 years in the same one bedroom 600 square foot cottage in Pasadena, California. Harry died years ago, and Betty has recently also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She made Tom the executor of her estate years earlier, and, with the help of his Michigan cousins, she has recently been moved to a nursing home. She continues to thrive physically – dancing everyday in the recreation room, and chatting endlessly with anyone who will sit with her for dinner. When any of her nieces and nephews are in the southern California area they always stop in for a visit. She is delighted to have the company though she has no idea who they are.
Betty lived in the smallest home but was the biggest packrat of the four Hood siblings! After moving her to the nursing home, it became Tom’s task to clean the cottage of its 40 year accumulation. The piles were endless – trash, Goodwill, keep, pass on to others in the family… He spent over a week in California sorting and cleaning. Little did he know that hidden in amongst the piles of newspapers, bottles of cologne, and stacks of books, he would also find his parents, his grandparents, his cousins, and himself.
The Hoods were letter writers and Betty saved them all!! Tom has passed on to his cousins the letters that were written by their parents, and has carefully placed in sheet protectors the letters written by his own mother. They span nearly 50 years — from the time she joined the WAACs in 1942 to the late 1980’s, shortly before the Alzheimer’s began to take its toll. Through these letters written to her sister, I have come to know my husband’s family. Often the letters were written not just to Betty, but to her entire family, with carbon paper in between pages so she could send a copy to each. Some were typed, some were handwritten, all were filled with family news.
Reading these letters is like sitting down and having a cup of coffee with my mother-in-law. I’ve heard of her love for Tom’s father, Buddie, who was also in the Army. I’ve shared her delight in her baby and toddler, “Tommy”, born when she was 38, had been married over 8 years, and had nearly given up on ever having children. I’ve learned all about 1950’s Germany where she and Buddie were stationed for a time. I joined in the search as she and Buddie looked for a farm to live and work after retiring from the military. She told me of her anguish when Buddie died in 1964, leaving her the single parent of a 9 year old son, and the trials and tribulations of raising him. We laughed at some of the antics he pulled as a child – bicycle crashes, sneaking out at night, failing grades requiring summer school. I heard the pride in her words as she told me of his college graduation. She told me how much Craig looked like her “Tommy” when he was born. The letters Betty saved made it possible for me to know my husband’s mother. I have held the same pages she touched her pen to, and the envelopes she sealed closed with a quick brush of her tongue. I feel that some of her spirit is there in those pages and I cherish them.
Now we email and Blog. There is no physical connection – my hand never touches the page where you wrote the words. We stay in touch; we know what’s going on in each other’s lives. We anxiously wait for the sound of “You’ve Got Mail”, but we don’t smell the sweet aroma of a perfumed page, or see the signature of those we love. I’ve sent and received handwritten letters my entire life. But I wish I had been more of a “packrat”. I would love to still have the letters written and lovingly signed by my grandmothers and my favorite aunt, the letters my mother sent with family news when I lived at other sides of the world, and those exchanged with friends when we were far apart. I do the best I can now – I print out and save many emails I receive but it’s not the same. Though the words are those of the people I care about, I know the paper never touched their hand.
Thank you Aunt Betty.