I suppose since History is a hobby of mine, it’s not surprising that I tend to think of journals and letters as something precious, windows into how people lived and thought. I have been a big letter writer much of my life, and often spent more time recording what I was up to (for example, at summer camp) than doing it. I have fond memories of collections of many colored pens, changing them out with subjects. (skip to list of letters here)
My past is littered with half full blank books started, but then lost track of, as well as many, many full sketchbooks. I always thought my kids might want to go back and read about when I was their age. When I was younger, we found a diary of my Grandmother’s from the 20s. We knew she was beautiful, but when she was dating, her diary shows that she might have lunch with Tom, dinner with Dick, and go dancing with Harry, then maybe have drinks afterwards with someone else entirely. One wonders what the boys thought of this? On the other hand, there were the wonderful references to her dates with “Mr. Murray” (never just “Charles”, of course, he was twice her age). I’d love to get my hands on that again. I’d equally like to find the “Grandmother book” Grammie filled out for me when I was pregnant with my first child. It was full of questions about her life, and the answers were fascinating and informative (even the two questions she left blank: “What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?” and “What do you regret most?”). Sadly, everyone wanted to read it, it was passed around the family, and I never saw it again. This is especially sad as it was the only place she’d recorded the story of how she had not originally been called Nellie, but, I think Elsie, but had been renamed at three years old for a maiden aunt who wanted her name to be passed along. In exchange, the aunt was going to leave “everything” to her. “And she never did!” she concluded the tale. No one can find any evidence of this in preserved records or recollections, so we have no idea if this was a story she’d been told, or the truth. None of her children remembered hearing the story before.
I’m aware that like my already-lost records, the chances of my journals or letters surviving to provide fascinating reading to future historians is slight. The Diaries of Samuel Pepys, and the “Handbook for William” left by the Carolingian woman for her son probably survive due to many happy accidents over the years. Still, it’s fun to imagine what someone who read my journals or letters four or even twelve centuries from now would infer about our world.
My mother used to keep an appointment book with occasional notations of weather, visitors and special meals. A month after she died I started to journal again, and this time have not stopped. So in theory, we now have an unbroken record that goes back at least to the sixties. I’ve managed to keep going with it. So some day if anyone asked “what did you have for dinner on March 19th, 2000?”, I can just go look it up! It’s invaluable when I write the letter each week, because I put in anything I think I might want to look up later. (I used to note when we bred the goats and rabbits, or when something strange happened, so I could go back and see what I’d thought when we finally figured out what caused it.) But my journal is most emphatically NOT my weekly letter!
My weekly letter came about when my mother-in-law Charlotte moved to Tucson, Arizona, and we only saw her at Christmas or sometimes Independence Day. As I tried to figure out what to get her for Christmas one year, I figured she’d rather have a letter with news of her grandchildren every week than anything I could buy or make for her. As with other writing I was doing, I composed the letter on the computer, and it occurred to me that my Aunt Amanda loved getting letters, but hated the idea that they should be answered. (For many of us this is a simple fact, not an option.) If I was simply sending her a copy of someone elses letter, there would be no obligation, so she could get the enjoyment without the burden. But when I printed that out, it seemed unfair to send it to my aunt and not my father, and if it was going to my father, and mother-in-law, shouldn’t my Father-in-law also get a copy? Not long after that our friend Olaf moved to Florida, would he like to hear news from New England? Another friend was in hospital, another in jail. Within a year I was printing (on a dot matrix machine, no less) thirty five copies of the letter. My postmaster loved me.
I try to make the letter interesting, the kind you’d want to get. I remember in one of the first letters I mentioned our surprise when we butchered a rabbit to discover, hidden under the fur, that he had two penises. One of my sisters called to tell me that I shouldn’t put something like that in a letter to our father! Our father who grew up on a farm? Like he’d be shocked! My criteria for what goes into the letter is, if we were sitting in my kitchen with a pot of tea and a plate of baked goods, what would I tell you about what I’d done this week? I talked about the weather, about what the kids were doing, about our animals (always a fun topic for people who’ve never had to deal with chickens, goats, pigs, etc.!) I shared new recipes, and talked about books I’d read, and movies or TV shows I’d seen. I shared my gripes and snarks about the political scene, and anything else I would share with a friend in casual conversation. I must have done OK, because new people often asked to be added to the list.
I was not surprised to hear that sometimes the letters were too long for people to get to reading immediately, but was surprised when I heard that one of my friends printed out a month’s backlog and took them on a cruise to read for entertainment, and then passed them around to others in her family. I was VERY surprised to hear that my brother was forwarding them to people (this was after I’d started emailing some of them) who didn’t know me because he found them amusing. I learned this when he asked me not to share that he’d gotten cancer, he felt it was a public forum. I never considered it public, it was (I’d thought) a chat with friends, and I was just sharing what was happening in my life. Certainly having my brother dying was something I was going through, and would talk with friends about, …but in deference to his wishes, I didn’t mention his progress, so those who didn’t know him were probably surprised when I told of his death, when I had not mentioned his long illness.
Occasional people started referring to my “blog”. I wasn’t sure quite what a blog was, but was pretty sure I couldn’t have one without knowing it. I write letters. Yes, I use electronic media to help distribute them (many were still physical, as some of my friends, especially the older ones, didn’t have access to computers). Of course, now know what a blog is, and I have a blog, but this isn’t it.
When Ælfwine got cancer, my recipients list jumped to over a hundred people who wanted updates on how he was doing, and I jumped at the chance to sending the letter via email for any who could handle the technology, instead of physical letters, (sometimes the letters caused problems because the files were too big to email. Remember those days?) Still later, in 2005 if the records are right, the kids convinced me to get a LiveJournal account and some people suggested I could post the letter and they could read it there. I still have friends who don’t have computers, although the friends I have had in prison, hospital, care facilities, etc. have been passing away. This past week Charlotte died, and I had to figure out whether this letter still was for her, or whether it had taken on a life of its own. I decided that it has, and I should keep writing it. But the references to this as a “blog” have made me think that maybe I’ll start posting the letter here each week, as well as the ones I mail out. Yes, strangers will see it, but I still assert it’s not a blog. The blog section is where I put the essays I am throwing out to the world. (It is a pity that I can’t put tags in “pages” so it would be easier to look things up that were in the letters!) People will have to come looking for for letters, new or old, in the letters section, and I doubt anyone will put that effort into it unless they have a good reason.