Letters and Understanding

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.

Washington Surveying the Field

 

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.

Coronavirus and a Spring Sale

The coronavirus epidemic, coming in March, has coincided with the beginning of spring and my birthday. Certainly a memorable birthday, celebrated with a carryout dinner.

My husband and I have behaved according to the rules. We stay at home, away as much as possible from people and interesting places.  Every where I look, I’m told that’s what people like me and my husband are supposed to do. After all, we are the “vulnerable.”  I’ve spent a year being treated for lymphoma and my platelet count will never be normal again. My husband has a bad back and is nearly diabetic.

But I don’t feel vulnerable.  Every few days I venture out, at the correct time–7:00 am to the grocery store, late afternoon for a walk. I’ve been to the post office where tapes show people where to stand so they can be six feet apart. I’ve thought about golf which for some reason isn’t closed. I could take my putter to the golf practice range near us, but that would require a walk.  My knee and shoulder object to too much exercise, so I haven’t yet tried that.

I’ve had my fill of video games, bad television, and silly puzzles.  I’ve watched the Coronavirus Task Force about every other day, and I’m impressed with the doctors.  I worry about my son, who is a doctor, and call him every other day. He says his hospital in Ohio expects to be swamped in a few weeks, but so far they are able to handle new cases.

Spring

What to do? Spring has arrived! My daffodils, including some mysterious yellow crocus that have spread from my front yard to the woods across the street, are in full blossom. I cut a few every morning, while listening to the little birds chirping their hearts out. We’ve already seen chickadees, woodpeckers, gold finches, cardinals, mocking birds, and blue birds. I’ve also spotted a few eagles and ospreys. The little birds, tweeting very loudly, finish the feeder off every other day. Here is a picture of our feeder:

 

 

Poetry

The birds have inspired me, because they make me think of poetry.  How about a little poetry, to go with the new coronavirus? :

                “There was an old lady from Williamsburg

                                Who fell into her TV

                She stood next to Dr. Birx,

                                Wondering where the President might be.

                Sure enough, he entered and said,

                                “Welcome to the Task Force!”

                She replied, “I’m glad I’m not dead!”

                                He said, “Isn’t this Worse?”

 

What could be worse than falling into the television set and becoming a flashing image?  Maybe I’ll need to add some more to this.

Since this is spring, I’m happy to announce a discount on all of my ebooks. From now till the end of June all of my historical novels will be available in the ebook version at a 35 per cent discount. Order them from ipgbook.com and use the code BMSpring2020.

I hope all who get this are safe and healthy. Stay well and follow the guidelines.

Washington’s Shadow’s in the Library and I’m Getting Old

On November 12, I donated a copy of Washington’s Shadow to the Williamsburg Regional Library. My book will be included in the library’s Local Authors Collection.

This was the fifth book I’ve donated to the library.  When I look back at the local newspaper clippings of my previous donations, I can see my aging process.  Every two years I get a little grayer, but the pose is the same. I’m smiling and the book cover is featured in all of them. Finishing and giving away my books must make me happy.

This year I especially appreciated the photo, as I’ve spent the last year being treated for an aggressive case of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).  The treatments sickened and tired me, but I’m still here. I feel lucky to have finished Washington’s Shadow, which may be my last novel.  If I write another historical book, it likely will be about me.  At my age, near eighty, I think I qualify as historical, though I do have a website which makes me modern (www.bmclennan.com).

Apparently, I’m now qualified to enter a class action lawsuit against manufacturers of the weedkiller Roundup. I don’t want to think about that now, but this experience may find its way into my next book.

Whether you got it out of the library or not, if you enjoy Washington’s Shadow, please tell other people.  Better yet, be historical– write a review and send it to Amazon.