Connecting With Ancestors Through Letters

I wrote an essay a few months back describing how the surge in digital communications has created a relative explosion in the impact of handwritten letters. My longtime friend Devin Marks left a comment that’s worthy of its own blog post, so here it is:

[A]bout a year ago, I returned to the family attic in Kentucky and pulled out some 1,700-odd letters from the 1880s, forward. All written to my great-grandfather and namesake, from his earliest days as a boarding school lad, prep’ster, through Princeton, down the aisle, and into his 40s. All from his mother and father.

It made for a remarkable many-month ritual in the breakfast nook, reading. It was also a glimpse back into a time and era where our correspondence was saved and as such reflected who we were — and who we hoped to become. By that I mean, without phone and email–much less video blogs and more — counsel and intimate conversations either happened in person or on the page. Today? Largely, phone chats, text message, and unsaved emails. The advice, the guidance, the Bible verses or character-building poetry, the tightening of the reins, or the congratulations — it’s so often lost these days.

But back then. My, what emotions, hopes, expectations, and more were shared on those pages. How their personalities seeped into textured paper and were accented by “real” enclosures — whether photo, scripture, business contract, flowers, or more. Magic! Better than any novel or film….magical discovery.

Really, that reading exercise introduced me to personalities and “voices” that brought to LIFE cracking black-and-white photos and hanging portraits of folks who previously were largely strangers. Even whispery scents of 19th century perfumes visited me, from time to time.

THOSE letters, paired with journals, business records, travel postcards, and published life-accounts… How grand…and life-changing, in a way.

Every Sunday was letter-writing day in that era, for most families of a certain social set. And that those mail posts and so many more were just sitting in the attic…? It’s been the gift of a lifetime, really. A way to reconnect with the core of family cultures that until last year had only faintly made their way through the generations. I’ve never been more rooted in or aware of the importance of family. (And you know me, what with the whole nonprofit crusade down south, THAT is saying a lot!)

It all brings to mind an observation by writer David McCullough, towards the end of the John Adams DVD (not the Netflix online version) — a behind-the-scenes interview added feature, worth tracking down. In that chat he observed that in reading the letters (and other keepsakes) of John and Abigail, he came to know them. He found he heard their voices as he read; breathed in sharply, as their intimacies of marriage, life, and career became familiar; he found he could anticipate their next decisions. He loved the feel of touching the very pages they touched, traced the indented path of their quills, sensed the passion of their words as reflected in deep underlines or unintended ink-pools. He realized in the end that he knew them in ways that even their contemporaries or children could not. For whom of them read the most private of their papers — how often did the social masks drop? They became his intimate friends.

And so it has been for me — my relationship with my great-greats and their extended clan. They’ve been reborn in a way, largely through their letters.

What impact have handwritten letters had in your life?

P.S., Devin, thanks for allowing me to highlight your perspective.

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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1 Comment

  1. I *just* happened upon this (again) in a Google moment, Maxer. Wow, does THAT bring back the moment of discovery, three-odd years ago.

    My, my…

    Marriage was just a likelihood back then–now a reality. Seminary? The same. A child? Unimaginable. And yet, typing now…what joys! And all of them rooted in that return to the attic and those forgotten letters.

    Thanks for “saving” this digital memory. It still sparks, with life.

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