Pens, Papers, and Stamps: Voices From the Past

‘Tis true, bloggers inspire other bloggers. Or maybe I’m just a Milton Berle archetype of the blogosphere, stealing an idea and calling it my own. I’ll let you decide.

Blogger Deb at the Widow Badass Blog recently posted about finding old cards and notes in her “Happiness Box.” After reading that, my mind immediately went to a folder of letters that I’ve been hauling from city-to-city for over three decades now. It’s not that I’d forgotten them. In fact, I’ve robotically added to this now-bulging folder after receiving something meaningful, or so hysterically funny that I can’t bear to toss it. For your consideration, I offer the below birthday card sent to me only a couple of years ago (Hi, A):

With COVID-19 “generously” offering me an unlimited opportunity of reflection and self-discovery, these letters are opening a door to voices from my past. The best part is that there are no ticking time bombs or unpleasant digs of earlier recriminations. It’s happily just a lovely stroll down memory lane.

The majority of the folder’s contents are letters from each of my parents going back to the early 1980’s. I moved from Michigan to Washington, DC, and had begun my career working in law libraries. From the many addresses written on the envelopes, I am reminded of just how many times I changed digs during my first two years there (cockroach infestations, noisy roommates, or both, as I strain to recall).

I’m not certain why I started keeping these letters. I know I wasn’t terribly sentimental at the time. In fact, the complete absence of correspondence from high school and college friends — of which I do recall there was plenty during this period — tells me that at least initially, I must have considered the file to be only for family correspondence. Only later, at some point in the nineties, do I see letters and cards from other people.

As I sort through and organize it all, I notice an additional aspect of my behavior of that period: I clearly knew what I was doing. The clue to this are the slight modifications made to some of the letters.

I added the year. My parents were good about writing the day and sometimes the month, but not always the year. So I’m recognizing my own hand in including it. Perhaps it was the librarian in me, demanding clarity, context, and correctness. But I suspect not; this was all coming from a place closer to the heart. I knew someday this correspondence would be meaningful to me. What I could never have imagined is that it would take a world pandemic to bring back its essence to me.

I feel like I’ve snuck into Professor Dumbledore’s office and am engaging in an unauthorized use of his pensieve, seeing moments I was never able to witness for myself. What probably bored the twenty-something me, as I raced to finish each letter, I am now fascinated by the routines and habits described by my then, recently-retired parents. Day trips to Windsor, Ontario; haircuts at long-closed joints my dad visited; dinners with my aunt and uncle at Cortina’s (which I happily discover is still operating); shopping trips to Detroit-area Jewish bakeries and butchers no longer in business, etc.

Struggling through Dad’s awful penmanship reminds me of the oft-told story we heard as kids: our grandfather, alarmed at seeing his son was a lefty, forced him at a young age to write “correctly” with his right hand instead. A lifetime of horrible scrawl became his hallmark.

Any resemblance to my own sorry attempts at longhand, we consider to be merely coincidental.

But Dad’s stories and recollections are vivid, with bursts of wonderfully-placed sarcasm. Neighbors, relatives, and whoever might have occupied the White House at the time, found themselves on the receiving end of his creative barbs. To wit, re: George H.W. Bush: “That man wouldn’t know how to use a verb if it hit him square on his dangling participle.”

I have to remember to use that sometime — one can steal from his own parent, right?

It is my mother’s letters, however, which have touched me in a manner that I couldn’t have anticipated. I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of letters she wrote to me (Dad’s missives were far fewer), and also just how much she was rooting for me to succeed. I’ve forgotten the amount of times she sent a check to “tide” me over, or that I should “buy something extra” for myself. There are constant references to care packages about to be shipped, tips on staying healthy, and reminders of upcoming birthdays and anniversaries of family members. Without going overboard, she also spun the occasional yarn about her own experiences with career and life challenges, trying her best to let me know that she did understand whatever challenge I might have been facing at the time.

After Mom’s passing, I struggled for quite a long time in coming to terms with how much she changed during her final years, when dementia took both her and my siblings and me on the rockiest of rides. Perspective can take longer than we sometimes want sometimes. Of course, arriving late to a party is better than never getting there at all.

So, I’ll continue to wash my hands, keep a safe distance, and nervously run into grocery stores every four or five days or so. But I’m also getting to catch up on old times. Really old times.

Keep staying safe, everyone.

Until next time…

36 thoughts on “Pens, Papers, and Stamps: Voices From the Past

  1. Gayle Jonas Ness

    I remember meeting your lovely parents when I invited them (at your request) to see Bevy & Bobby’s home. I love that you’ve saved correspondence from them; I, too, have parental letters — mostly typewritten from my mom (she wrote every week for decades! No, I haven’t saved them all) and a few handwritten from my dad (that are extra special because of that). These old fashioned narratives of times gone by are a thing of the past — a short email or a quick text to say hi can’t compare. Every once in a while I’ll still drop my mom or long distance friend a hand written note; it’s definitely a lost art. Stay safe, Marty! Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They talked about Bevy and Bobby’s home for months, Gayle! What an amazing place that was. I wish my Dad had typed his letters, good grief. He wrote one about all of his ancestors back in Russia. None of those foreign names are legible! 🙂 You stay safe too, ‘ol friend.

      Like

  2. What a sweet post. I never got a single letter or card from either of my parents, but I have saved every note from my children.
    They wanted pictures of the tooth fairy, which I obliged. One note was from my oldest daughter, calling me by my first name. It’s so bittersweet for me since they no longer communicate with me.
    I too, am a naturally lefty who was forced to use my right hand, but have been told I have beautiful handwriting. My Granny used to slap my hand and say, “you know…the devils’ children are left handed.”
    My youngest daughter is left handed, blonde and green-eyed like me. She used to “thank” me for passing on all of my recessive genes. LOLOL.
    Did your daddy ever complain about what that forceable change did to his brain? I’ve always thought my right-brain, left-brain thing went screwy because of it. 🥴

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s pretty much what my grandfather did to my dad also, Laurel. He used to hit him every time he wrote using his left hand. Nice, huh? Ugh. No, he never really talked about he effect it took, if any. But OMG he had bad printing! After all these years, I’m still struggling reading those letters of his. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your old cards and yellowing letters from your family are real treasures, Martin. Not only do they spark memories of your parents, but they also bring you back to a simpler time. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. m2muse

    I recently came across letters to my maternal grandpa from his dad, my great grandpa. Some were from the 1960’s. I will go through them and get them to some cousins. And like you, dementia sent my mom and I on a rocky road. I have to remind myself of what she was prior to being afflicted with dementia. Every day is a lesson in mindfulness. Thank you for your reflections.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Except for that obscene b-day card…this is a poignant post. Sometimes it takes a jog to OUR memory to remember the essence of another.
    One of my Dad’s ‘last words’ to me (before he got further into his own dementia) was, “Always remember, just don’t ever forget.”
    I pass them on to you, friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Give yourself a pat on the back for keeping these treasures and now having time to enjoy them. What a treasure to keep all the wonderful memories vivid and alive. Enjoy your trip down memory lane as we wait this crisis out because I can’t think of a better way to use your time. Closets can always be straightened.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think piggybacking off each other happens. Like you say, Marty, we get inspired. I think it is also a compliment to another blogger.

    OMgosh! The funniest birthday card! Your Dad’s line on Bush, very witty! I became a little teary reading about your Mom. She is ‘everyone’s Mom’ and extra special because she is (I won’t use “was”) your Mom and she is obviously with you every day.

    (I suspect the photo is your parents, Marty…….or was it just a great looking photo that came with frame)

    Hugs 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lol That made me laugh, Erica. Way, way, way back when, probably when I was in college, I did buy a frame and keep the picture they had in it as a joke. I’m still tempted to do that, but a mature person around me prevents it.

      Thanks for your compliment, and the grace for being “inspired” by Deb’s post. I really try hard to be original and not follow the crowd, but as soon as I read her piece I knew I had to finally pull out that folder. I’m glad I did.

      Stay healthy, please!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sad memories but memories from your life experience can be comforting to re-visit. If I open that box of old letters I am there for hours, transported back in time to a simpler life. Your letters are in such good condition, I doubt I could say the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fortunately the letters at least are for the most uplifting and positive, as opposed to the personal interactions much later. So I’m grateful for them. And, yes, they’re in great shape because I literally never looked at them! I always in the back of my mind thought of them as something I’d look at when I hit my 60’s. Oops, I guess its time. 😄. Many thanks for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. debscarey

    Love the “Kenneth” card & the gorgeous picture of your parents.While I was in boarding school, my mother wrote to my sister & I every week. We, of course, did the same – dutifully filling out those airmail folders with our boarding school nonsense. My mother clearly didn’t appreciate how difficult it was to find stuff to write about, for she’s subsequently mocked my letters filled with “enthusiasms”. Then I read some of the letters her parents wrote to her following her marriage, and I realised some things are learned behaviours. I’ve kept the notes and drawings my daughter did for me when little, also some of the hilarious cards & poems written by a mad, drunken, manic depressive Scottish client of whom I was very fond. Actually, this might be just the time to dig those out 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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