Stuck in my house since March due to the pandemic, I now write short essays and letters instead of major 50,000 word pieces. I think short pieces are easier to follow, and from letters I seek understanding.
Last year, I completed a document detailing my experience being treated for lymphoma. Now I hate to remind myself about anything to do with that. I can’t look at the piece. It sits in my computer, like a sulking neglected child. It cries to me and makes demands, but I resolutely ignore it.
Instead, I started a blog. I also write letters to my grandchildren. These are actual paper letters, written by hand, placed in an envelope with a stamp, and delivered by the post office. Remember what those are?
Last week I received my first response, from my fourteen- year- old granddaughter. She writes, “It’s been forever since I’ve had to write a letter. Emails just aren’t the same.”
What a clever girl!!
She can write, and her handwriting is less cursive and much easier to decipher than mine. My writing is cursive destroyed by years of practice and annoyance at how long it takes to put my brain on paper. After all, there’s much more in my head than a few written words can say.
When I started my essay about lymphoma, I thought about my own personal history. For my generation, major events were communicated by letter. People understood what was happening from letters. I guess that’s why I write to grandchildren.
Understanding Letters and Family History
For example, in my family, letters went back and forth constantly. My mother lived in New York City, as did two sisters and three brothers. Two more sisters and a brother lived in Richmond, Virginia. My two aunts from Virginia came to visit every year when my grandfather was alive. They took the train and spent their time on board playing canasta, evidently with numerous other people taking the same trip. Always arriving with pockets full of cash and newly minted silver dollars which they used for gifts to the children, they came with stories, gossip, and jokes. The rest of the year, they exchanged letters with the New York family.
My mother wrote her letters using Hebraic letters, but they were not in Yiddish. She used the Hebrew script to write letters in English, as did her sisters in Richmond. The Virginians always ended their letters with a “Love y’all,” phonetically written out using Hebrew script. They understood each other’s letters without difficulty, though I’m sure I couldn’t decipher them easily.
In contrast, my father treated a letter from a brother in Europe or a sister in Brazil as a major event. He wrote most of his correspondence in Russian and kept his family’s letters to himself. The letters told him about the events of World War II, the murders of his parents and his brother’s serving in the Russian army at Stalingrad. He hid a few photos in a small drawer away from everything else, as though if we were to touch or see them they would bring harm of some kind. My father never spoke out loud about these letters, although in response to them we sent regular CARE packages to his family in Europe after World War II ended.
Letters, Meaning and Understanding
Letters aren’t like electronic texts. When we understand them, they show force and strength, weakness and sorrow, love and happiness. Every person has a unique handwriting and choice of how to say things. Understanding written letters allows us to know something personal about the person who wrote them.
Physical writing isn’t easy. A writer looks at the blank page and knows that somehow it needs to be filled with something meaningful that another person can understand. The way a person writes can tell a lot about the writer, apart from the words being inscribed. Letters are about understanding meaning.
All of my historical novels introduce fictional characters who read and write authentic letters that carry the story. The more recent the time period, the more material exists in libraries. Letters held in libraries sometimes are originals; sometimes they have been transcribed into typed versions. Seeing the old letters, the wording, the size of the script, and the force with which script was put on paper, gives us some understanding of the character of the writer.
Revolution and History as Seen from an Understanding of Letters
My latest book, Washington’s Shadow, is based on the personal correspondence of Leven Powell with his family and about his work for George Washington. Powell knew Washington personally and worked for him in many capacities for over thirty years. In his later years, at Washington’s request, he ran for office and served as an elector in the 1796 election.
Leven Powell was a supporter of revolution and an owner of a mill and a farm. Like Washington, he looked to the west. He wanted growth and expansion, and the settlement of new land. Serving as a colonel in the field during the revolution, he spent much time writing his wife detailed letters. Here is one excerpt, describing his feelings about a meeting of truce with representatives of his enemy, the British military:
I have been uneasy at not hearing from you for some time… Since my last letter, this neighborhood has been honored by the company of great men… As the head of a flag of truce…I had the honor of breakfasting on the best Hyson Tea with the Commodore, General Clinton, Lord Dunmore and several gentlemen Officers. I was received and treated with great politeness by the whole…On board the “Kitty” vessel I found 12 or 15 Officers, the most hospitable, kind people I ever met. …their treatment of me was so exceedingly kind that on my return I sent them a present of 20 bushels of oysters, 30 loaves of bread, a goose and a turkey. It grieves me to see men of such sentiments as those engaged in such a cause.
What His Letters Say About Leven
Understanding this letter tells a lot about Leven. When he wrote it, he held the rank of colonel and led a small army. Favoring the American cause from the earliest days leading up to the first hostilities, he’d served in militias and was a friend of George Washington. And he was a gentleman. Leven didn’t see the British officers he met as monsters and enemies to be slaughtered. He found them to be kind, and favored them with a generous gift of food.
Washington’s Shadow is a novel, a story of Leven Powell’s children and the first wave of western expansion. Washington’s presence permeates their decisions. They took meaning from their father’s letters. The plot is mostly fiction, but the place and the events are historic and recorded in letters.
The Written Record and More Recent History
In 1940 Germany began massive bombing of Britain, known euphemistically as “The Blitz.” Letters, films, and official and private postings showed the bombings and their effects. When we understand the personal letters, films and postings we can see what it was like to live at the time.
For example, Britain’s Richmond Golf Club posted the following temporary rules after German bombs hit the course in 1940:
- Players are asked to collect Bomb and Shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to the Mowing Machines.
- In Competition, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
- The positions of known delayed action bombs are marked by red flags at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance therefrom.
- A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.
- A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.
These written temporary rules meant, “Let’s muddle through.” Muddling through at this golf club meant keeping the game going, regardless of circumstances. They were serious. In golf, a player normally can replay a ball from the same place and take a one stroke penalty. Bombs, in this club’s rules, are to be ignored.