During my youth and middle years – i.e. The Olden Days when cellphones, email, Messenger, etc. existed only in my brother’s subscription to Popular Mechanics – writing letters just made sense. Sure, you could use the telephone, solidly anchored in the kitchen for all to hear, but a long-distance call was a luxury.
Actually, when I think back to that time, I wonder if I should start a movement promising inner peace: We could trade today’s incessant notification pings for one jolt of dopamine each day – the arrival of the letter carrier. Getting a personal letter was like receiving an important gift. Letters were rarely dashed off in haste; the very act of finding paper, envelope, and stamp called for commitment and thought.
I was the happy recipient of many letters over the years. Take Rachel Grover, my father Everett Elmhurst’s sister, for example. Having tea at Aunt Rachel’s Toronto home with its books, art and memorabilia was the No. 1 choice, but receiving one of her chatty, insightful letters came a close second. When I left the family farm for Ryerson, I exchanged letters with friends and family. After Ryerson, some journalism friends stayed in touch by mail.
But I am embarrassed to confess that I kept only a few dozen of these various exchanges. Too many moves! Too much stuff! More importantly, who thinks of their own life in terms of historic artifacts?
As I researched my book Life & Legacy, I realized my grandmother, Ruth (Birdsall) Elmhurst, lives on because of her letters. I could hear her, even though I had never heard her real voice. I could feel her humanity even though I only knew her after she was partially paralyzed during surgery.
And one day I realized that was also true for two of my contemporaries, women whose friendship now lives only in my memory.
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Hanna Miskiman and I met as pre-teen pen pals (indisputable evidence of my Olden Days status). That friendship lasted more than 50 years, glued together by letters, and later emails and Facebook “likes”. Our families did get together in person, but not often enough – she settled in B.C. and I was in Ontario.
Can such a friendship be meaningful? Indeed it can. I was overwhelmed by grief in spring 2021 as I struggled to find the right words for my last letter to Hanna as she faced the final stage of cancer.
And then there was my friend Jane, who died shockingly young in 1996, a month short of her 43rd birthday.
My husband, Dwight, and I met Jane Wilson and her husband-to-be Ron Eade when we were all greenhorn journalists at the Peterborough Examiner. They moved on to the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and lured us there in the early 1980s. In 1988, Jane and Ron accepted jobs at the Ottawa Citizen. Their son Graeme was born in April 1994.
And then Jane was diagnosed with melanoma. Months of treatments, surgery and setbacks lay ahead as the cancer marched through her body.
One could rightly expect her to be angry and despondent, but a set of cherished letters underline my memories of that sad period, a time when Jane saved her emotional energy for her home, her friends, her marriage to Ron, and especially their deep joy as new parents. She embraced each day with hope and humour – and implored me to do the same.
This paragraph from an October 1994 letter still makes my heart ache:
“It might sound strange, but I have had perhaps the happiest times of my life this past summer and fall as we grew into a family and our lives focused on things that are truly meaningful. The cancer and the sense of urgency that it imposes seem to have intensified what is already a pretty intense experience (as a new parent).”
My cache of letters also includes followup letters from Ron as he grieved Jane’s death, parented, grieved some more, and eventually found a new future. We rejoiced the day he wrote about a special connection with a woman named Nancy Knight, who would soon become his loving second wife.
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All of this makes me think about today’s all-but-forgotten art of letter writing. What will millennials save for hapless researchers in the future? Their parents’ cryptic WhatsApp messages about the cats?
I joked about this with a Winnipeg cousin, Kara Van Dam. Kara tracked me down thanks to genealogical research, her personal escape during the hectic pandemic lockdown during which she had put her career on hold to focus on four young daughters. She provided excellent help as I researched my book, and she’s also a natural writer so her emails are a good read. But would a future reader glean an ounce of worthwhile material from our exchanges – a mishmash of genealogical discoveries, family news, funny asides and book recommendations? At least these “letters” would be typed, so no need to puzzle over scratchy handwriting and ink blobs.
But here’s a further thought: Will a future researcher still have access to today’s technology? And how the heck will they piece it all together? My personal communications bounce from email to text, and from Messenger to WhatsApp. Then there’s my public persona in places like Facebook and Instagram. At least I am easing out of LinkedIn and have given up on Twitter, so no need to search there. But lots of luck to any researcher in the unlikely event of future curiosity.
With this in mind, may I offer a suggestion? When you receive a significant message from someone who matters, print it out, and store that good old-fashioned piece of paper in a memorabilia box of some kind. In fact, be bold – print out your own significant messages as well. Maybe, just maybe, paper will still be valuable to future researchers when 2021 slips into the past.
Who knows? You might even open this box yourself some stormy day when you’re looking for inspiration.