The lost legacy of the letter

At my age, I have to be careful about nostalgia, about comparing the good old days to the deplorable present. I don’t bother anyone with my opinions on leggings as pants or expect young people to be impressed that I saw Bruce Springsteen on the “Born to Run” tour for $7. You can’t live in the past, and my opinions about how to live are mostly irrelevant: I’m not in the future’s driver seat. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

But there are things from the past I don’t mind saying I long for. Like letters. I miss them. For hundreds of years, people wrote their thoughts and ideas down on paper, trusted them to couriers of various sorts, and sent them to and fro around the world. I sent and received hundreds: lumpy folded letters from a friend that she took three days to write, love letters, thin airmail letters folded to make a lightweight blue envelope sent from overseas. 

Then, suddenly, sometime in the 1990s they stopped. It’s shocking how quickly they stopped compared to how important they had been. 

E-mail was an improvement in many ways. It’s not the same as letters, though. Something is lost; the days spent checking the mail, seeing the distinctive handwriting on an address, ripping an envelope open and diving in. And, unlike texts and phone calls or Instagram posts, letters outlast their writers and capture history. At least as long as someone keeps them. 

My family keeps them. I’ve been knee-deep in old letters since I became the caretaker of my grandparents’ and parents’ filing cabinets. I keep digging up treasure. There are letters my great-grandmother sent home from Persia, where she was a missionary to the Christian Nestorians. Thousands of miles from home, letters meant the world to her. As I read them, I know, but she didn’t, that World War I would soon come to her missionary compound and ruin everything, and make my grandmother an orphan. Then I have letters from friends and patients of my grandmother that show how she raised herself up and became a person people depended on.

There’s a remarkable set of letters from an Army friend of my father’s – the only black man in his unit, a piano player and language adept from Virginia. Their job during the war was learning Japanese. The friend went to Japan and wrote expressive, descriptive letters about what he did and saw, but they stop before I can find out what happened to him in post-war civilian life. I wish I could; he couldn’t have had it easy. 

And a folder of letters from 1949 from my father to my mother. “Hot damn, Laura! I’m a real tractor driver now,” he started one letter. They had met in the spring, and by the time my father went off to work on a wheat farm in remote northwest Kansas for the summer, they were in love. “I like driving the tractor at night, because it’s cooler but mostly because it gives me time to think about you,” he wrote. 

My mother, meanwhile, was off to France with a church group, building a camp where French and German teenagers could get together and hope to heal from the war.

“Last night I looked out the window over the rooftops of Paris and there was the moon. It was a Kansas orange even. Guess who and what I thought of as I looked at it. I knew that as I thought of you when I saw it you would think of me,” she wrote, and signed off “Give my regards to your tractor.” 

“I get quite a few letters, but yours are by far the best I get,” wrote my father. “To read and re-read them is my most satisfying recreation, much more so than looking at your picture, because somehow, I can see you more clearly as you are in the letters.” 

I had never seen these letters or heard about that summer. I wondered whether I should look, but my mother sure wanted me to read them to her. They are so lovely, so innocent and young, but very intense and smart. It’s been such a lovely thing to take her back to another time when it was just the two of them in love and the future was theirs. 

The future was an academic career and six kids. Mom was super-busy, but took time to write to her parents about our goings-on. It is a gift to read through these and find descriptions of my older sister Sarah, who died this year. She was always an age-determined version of her same self, organized, literal-minded and polite in an adorable way. 

I’m there, too. When I was 5, Mom wrote, “Polly asks all manners of questions and asks the meaning of every new word she hears. She makes up wonderful songs, like one that goes “My mother died in Wichita Kansas, (repeated), and ends with ‘ I believe that to be so.’” That’s me! A writer then, just as I became one later. 

Here I am, living in the past. But it doesn’t feel like the past while I’m immersed in these letters. Someone took pen to paper and, in the middle of a busy life, freeze-framed the moments, making them forever, past, present and future.


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