September 6, 2012
Dear Blogger Friends,
I used to write letters. I guess we all did, right? As a society, I mean. Back before the computer age brought us lightning fast email and instant messaging, we wrote letters to each other. Remember the excitement of dropping that envelope in the mailbox down on the corner, knowing that in just five to seven days the recipient would slip his or her finger under the glued-down flap and read your words? How about watching for the postman each to day to see if, nestled among the bills and shiny sales circulars, a hand-addressed envelope from a friend waited for you? (Okay, a bunch of you have no idea what I'm talking about. Bear with me and read on, K?)
You're probably wondering where I'm going with all this. Let me start by saying I recently received a special gift that brought my attention back to the art of letter-writing.
I was sipping coffee with my cousin, Melanie, at her dining room table, listening to her talk about her visit with our extended family in upstate New York. She described the morning she spent with our ninety-year-old grandmother, beloved family matriarch and lifelong pack rat, who is on the decline and succumbing to ever-longer bouts of dementia. Nona was having a good day, though, and seemed to know who Melanie was as they chatted in her sunlight-flooded nursing home room.
When Nona had tired, my cousin kissed her good-bye. In the hallway, an aunt offered to drive Melanie down to Nona's house where, she explained, she had found a box of old letters which my cousin may be interested in saving.
Melanie held up two stacks of yellowed envelopes for me to see. Turned out, some of the letters had been written by her father in the seventies, when he and his young bride were stationed at the Army base in Germany where Melanie was born. My hand went to my heart. These, I knew, were a true treasure. We were all devastated when my uncle passed away, but none more than my cousin. Melanie had barely been a teenager.
Melanie held the second stack up. Her eyes sparkled as she smiled, pushing it across the table to me. These letters, she explained, all have "Skeldon" written in the return addresses. Skeldon is my maiden name.
Two of the letters were written by my father to Nona when he was away at college. One of them even tells his mother about a girl he met named Diane, who he planned to make fall madly in love with him. It worked. Diane is my mother.
The other letters, all postmarked in 1943, were penned by my paternal grandfather, James Adam Skeldon.
This is what I already knew: Nona, a blushing bride, had learned she was pregnant with my father just a month after my grandfather had shipped out with the Navy during World War II. He had come home on leave for three weeks in 1944, when he met his one-year-old son for the first time. James Adam Skeldon, Quartermaster, Third Class, died at sea on January 12, 1945 when his submarine, the USS Swordfish sunk off the coast of Japan.
|My grandfather, James A. Skeldon|
With my cousin's gift, I realized I was poised to learn much more about my grandfather, and in his own words, too! I tucked those fragile, yellowed envelopes safely in my bag and left Melanie's house a much richer woman than when I'd arrived that day.
I become emotional every time I read my grandfather's letters. In each one he addresses Nona as "My Dearest Mary," and he signs off with "As Ever, Jim." He talks about the ups and downs of life at sea, the day-to-day activities with his shipmates, his loneliness, and his frustrations. There is also hope in his words. It's the hope that gets me. A knot forms in my throat every time he writes, "When I get home..."
When the gamut of emotions have run their course in my heart, I'm able to turn my attention to the art of letter writing, to the beautiful ceremony imbued in each: The date in the upper right hand corner, surely written before anything else; the greeting, a prerequisite formality that's softened by my grandfather's delicate terms of endearment; and the body of the letter, rich with voice, so that I can almost -- almost -- hear him speaking.
This reminded me of something I read in Bird By Bird.
In that book, author Anne Lamott shares her knowledge on the creative writing craft and how to deal with the blockages writers often face. She devotes a chapter to the concept of using the letter form as a writing tool. She says, "When you don't know what else to do, when you're really stuck and filled with despair and self-loathing and boredom, but you can't just leave your work alone for a while and wait, you might try telling part of your history -- part of your character's history -- in the form of a letter. The letter's informality just might free you from the tyranny of perfectionism."
I say, why not take this exercise one step further, and allow your character to write the letter? Maybe even to you! Because just like my grandfather's voice floats off the paper when I read the letters he wrote, so too will your character's voice come through.
And listen, I can't be the only person with a pack rat grandmother who's kept every scrap of paper ever written to her. The next time you need some inspiration, seek out those old letters I'll bet are tucked away in a family member's attic. Trust me, they are filled with amazing stories to tell!