I spent a week in July with my family, cleaning out the house I grew up in before it went on the market. To say my parents were hoarders is not exactly correct, but my father, a professor by trade and a tinkerer extraordinaire, never met a bolt, scrap of aluminum, motor part or tool that he didn’t find worthy of hanging on to for some future need. My mother, also an educator, was an early adopter of the home Xerox machine, which, as she once explained, allowed her to file information that caught her fancy in multiple spots. Both of them wrote copiously: letters, stories, articles, poetry, memoirs, dissertations. In addition, they had saved what appeared be every letter or card they ever received (and some they had sent: see Xerox, above).
The household stuff was straightforward: items to family members, items to donate, items to sell. The papers were more challenging. We sorted: family history saved and labeled; writings stored for a future date, most financial information shredded. The letters we divided into piles to return to sender, when possible, and so I flew home with bulging envelopes of old correspondence from my family and myself. It was fascinating to read letters I had sent, even more fascinating to see that I used to write LONG letters – pages long. We had been trained as children to write, and so I did: telling my parents about my children, work, and general family life. I lived 3000 miles away, and writing was the most economical way to connect.
I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences, if you’re lucky enough to have relatives who kept letters. Reading old letters has a certain romantic appeal. It seems so quaint to me now that someone would sit down and chronicle their lives in such a personal way. They are charming because they a snapshot of a moment – here’s information, about events, feelings, ideas, that were true, what was happening, how I was at this particular moment in time.
There are people who throw old letters out, but I believe they are probably worth the few boxes they might take up in your house. You never know when a future relative turned historian will find them worthy, and not just for publication: sitting around and reading our epistles of family life over the years was sometimes outright hilarious, but also illuminating and poignant. The sense of history and the path through the past made keeping them all worthwhile.