Sorting out my clutter has caused me to muse on many things…not only why some of us keep things that mean something to us and others don’t, but also what we tend to keep….. take letters for example…
Perhaps for younger folk a written letter posted by snail mail is a quaint old idea…every one wants instant answers, instant contact, instant photos. The idea of writing a letter in your best writing whilst trying not to make too many mistakes lest you had to start again, finding an address, posting it, waiting some time for the letter to arrive – and even longer for an answer to come back – must seem a silly idea to the younger generations!
But these letters, especially old ones are a reminder of our past, an insight into what (and who!) we were interested in, what we did with our time and our thoughts. In this centenary of the first world war, letters from the soldiers and nurses at the front lines tell us what the people were thinking and what they were going thru. But letters from less historic times also tell us so much more than what we read in history books.
I have a large collection of letters, some very old, some not so old. I keep them because I can’t throw them out. They tell of past times and connects us to our ancestors in a different way than the spoken word might.
Some people throw out clutter – like old letters – without a moments thought. In the generations to follow there will be very few written letters to keep I imagine. Email and texting is the way we communicate – and who keeps a copy of those for posterity? Future generations may wish that their parents and grandparents kept some of those things for them to treasure…to read and reflect on, to keep in a safe place for no other reason than that they are something from our past which connects us to generations before we were even alive.
All the letters I have lovely stories to tell. I think the most surprising one I have is from my Mum to her granny. So my great grandma – it must be 100 years old. Written in my mum’s childish hand it is just a short note to her granny as it appears the granny had been ill and so my Mum had written her a note. A simple little note but clearly kept by my great-grandmother, my mother and then finally handed down to me. How could I throw that tender piece of writing in the bin?
I have my granny’s little writing bureau – a small wooden box that ladies of that generation had that they kept their writing paper and pen and ink in. When my Mum gave the bureau to me she had a queer look on her face and she said “Granny has some letters in here that are love letters. I found them in there but I can’t throw them out”. Her look was enough to stop me asking any questions. I forgot about the letters until years later. I took out a random letter and read it and realised that these were letters from another man to my granny before she had met and married my grandpa.
I then got all the letters out and read them in date order. It was like reading a Mills and Boon romance where you only got the gentleman’s words and could only guess what was in my grannys’ replies. However it was also strange as it was like you had read the end of the book and knew how things turned out but didn’t know how it happened. I knew that my granny ended up with grandpa and so you knew that this romance was doomed. They were such sweet earnest words from a young suitor to my granny. But also quite proper – and it was clear they did not see each other very often. The last letter had been written after they had decided (altho I think it was granny that had decided) to end the courtship. The young man told granny of his eternal love but that he respected her decision. So sad!
But sadder still if these letters had been lost. They must have meant a lot to my granny to keep them, and then pass them onto my Mum. My Mum kept them, even tho I sensed that she felt it wasn’t quite proper that Granny had kept them! So now I have them.
They cover events that happened over 100 years ago. They reveal a different world of courtship. My granny had moved to Australia with her family as a young woman – she was used to painting classes with her young friends in middle class England – and here she was in the dry, flat wheatbelt of Australia. Perhaps very homesick. Getting courted by a besotted young man. I can only remember my granny as a frail, unwell woman. Very elegant very proper. But these letters told of another granny! A beautiful, vivacious, proper young lady, used to riding to the hunt being courted (quite possibly) by a number of young men. What a time she must have been having! These letters helped me see my granny as she must have been not as I remember her. Surely that is a wonderful reason to keep these letters….
My Mum had also kept all of the letters from us kids when we were at boarding school. I am a lot younger than my brothers and sisters and I found the letters from my brothers after I was born. Excited letters about their new little sister who they wouldn’t get to meet until the next school holidays. I also found the letters after my younger brother was born. Boys being boys there were not a lot of letters from them. But my Mum had kept them all.
I was away at boarding school for five years. I hated it! Every Sunday evening was letter writing night when we all had to write our letters. I suppose that was to ensure that the parents DID get letters. My letters are all there – written in my best writing. Usually only a couple of pages of boring school life. I note I never said anything to make my parents worry and so they didn’t know how much I hated it. I was a book-worm and pretty nerdy – and just got swallowed up by boarding school tsunami. So my letters sound pretty happy – when I know that I wasnt!
Letters from home were so important at boarding school. It was the only way you had any contact with your parents. You couldnt ring them unless it was something extremely important – and you needed to go to the Office and they would ring the number and would be in the room while you spoke to your parents. So letters were the lifeline to home. When I read my letters home I thought they sounded pretty boring – but I guess my Mums’ letters were only full of farm activities – but it was the receiving of the letter that was the important thing. That my Mum would have to sit down and write a letter amongst everything else she was doing on the farm, get it down to the mailbox in time to be picked up by the mailman or take it into town.
Mail was given out after tea at boarding school. The big calico bags would sit beside the door to be collected by the house prefect as you left the dining hall. Sometimes there would be a huge bag, filled with parcels, if there was a birthday happening. You used to look at the bags and really hope there was a letter in there for you – and be bitterly disappointed if there wasnt! So letters when you were in boarding school were so important. They didn’t need to say anything important – they were just a physical sign that you were loved and being thought of. My Mum kept all these letters that we wrote back to the farm. It must have been very hard to send the kids off to boarding school when they were only 11 – and she must have missed us and looked forward to our little letters!
Fast forward another 20 years and I have my own letters. Ones that I sent to my boyfriend (now husband) as he was travelling around Europe with some mates. The fact that I have them in my letter box is surprising considering they were young men travelling with very little gear and the letters were sent to Post Offices across Europe for them to pick up when they reached that town. What does it say about me, that altho he kept my letters, I havent kept his? My box of treasured did get wet many years ago and I think they might have been lost at that time. Shame tho. Ironically I do have the letters from my first boyfriend! Perhaps they are the only ones that should be binned!!
There are other random letters…. letters my Dad wrote to Mum when he was in hospital in the city and we were all still home on the farm. My Dad had very little schooling and his letters are simple and short. But they show he is hating being in hospital and is missing his wife and family. There are other letters from my elderly granny and grandpa to my Mum. They are difficult to read as granny had Parkinsons and so her writing was very shaky. Finally when Granny was no longer able to write them, Grandpa took over that role.
Even more recently, when my daughter was living in the USA for six months, we used to chat via email and occasionally by chat online (much harder to do that even 10 years ago!). The other day when sorting out a box I found that I had printed out pages and pages of emails and also some of our chats. Perhaps not the same as a letter, but still a record of what she was doing and what we chatted about as she did Camp America and went on Uni Exchange. This was very shortly after 9/11 so is perhaps why I printed and kept those conversations – it made me feel as tho I had something to hold onto and to reread.
So these letters give us insight into our lives and those of our ancestors. They show a devoted grandchild writing to her sick granny, a lovesick young man writing to his girl, children writing to their parents home on the farm, parents missing their kids a long way from home, a father missing his wife and children and a daughter writing to elderly parents of her life on the farm. All of them give glimpses of the people behind the pictures, behind the family stories. We are reminded that old people were once young, that parents always miss their children…
So without these letters we would be missing out on so much. If a granny hadn’t saved the note from her young grand-daughter, if a young woman hadn’t saved the letters from her first love, if a Mum hadn’t saved her children’s letters from boarding school our world would be poorer without them. We would not miss them, as we weren’t aware that these insights existed – but we are richer now for reading them.
So perhaps being sentimental and keeping these links to the past is more important than having a clutter free house. Having a box of special treasures is important to following generations. Will our grandchildren be sad that there are no letters from the past for them to read? No sweet love letters from sweethearts, no cherished letters from grannies or parents, no voices from the past telling us about their lives….
So perhaps next time you will think before you throw out a box of old papers – pause a moment. You may not read them very often, they may just be sentimental links to the past – but perhaps the world of the future will be richer for them. I know I am glad to be the holder and protector of my precious letters…. are you?