Letters from parents TueNight

Family Archivist: Why I’m the Only One Who Still Writes Letters

I come from one of those annoyingly functional intact families that make it hard for me to sell my memoir to publishers. Of course, the rosy vision I have of my family relations is helped by the fact that I live, by choice, three thousand miles away from them in the Bay Area, and have for 20 years. It’s easier to idolize my parents and siblings (and vice versa) when we’re not rubbing right up against each other every day.

Even if the cross-country move was entirely my doing, once I became a parent the fact that I was the outer moon to their cozy hometown Family Planet became harder to bear.

When Mom and Dad wanted to see my brother’s and sister’s kids perform in a school music showcase or volleyball game, it required a drive that ranged from five to thirty-five minutes (depending on the snow). To see my kids perform, it requires advanced airline reservations, a transfer in Chicago, and three days for them to get over jet lag. Seeing Grandma and Grandpa woven into the daily lives of my nieces and nephews in a way that my own children won’t experience makes me feel the meaning of the word “apart” in every body cell.

The letters are tiny time capsules of those unexceptional quotidian details that we will someday miss with irreparably broken hearts.

Except for one thing: I’m the only one to whom my parents write letters.

The fact occurred to me about five years ago, as I opened one of the weekly missives I get from my parents. The envelopes they take turns addressing always include handwritten notes, clippings from my hometown newspaper, and random photos tucked inside. (My mom tucks in a $20 bill from time to time, and I’ll never outgrow the thrill of that.) The letters are a record of what my parents are doing, who they’ve seen, and what they’re thinking about, all in their own words. Tiny time capsules of those unexceptional quotidian details that we will someday miss with irreparably broken hearts.

With my brother and sister just a short drive away from my parents, I’m the only one in the family who gets a steady supply of these written records. If by moving to California I gave away my chance for everyday closeness, the letters bring this blessing in its stead.

To be sure, I didn’t always treat my parents’ letters with such care. I harbor a sharp memory of getting picked up at summer camp and blithely informing my mother that when mail was handed out by the counselors, her letters went straight to the bottom of my carefully prioritized stack of letters and postcards from my friends.

“Wow,” my mom said, pulled up short. “That’s not very nice to tell me, Nancy.”

“You write so much,” I blundered on, unaware as only a teenage daughter could be, about the barbed wire shape of my words.

But the light bulb finally went off, maybe around the time there were a couple of mercifully short-lived parental health scares. I started stashing the letters my parents sent me in a legal envelope. Then I decided I should save the letters they wrote to my kids, containing as they do the double barreled dose of grandparental pride that borders on “Good for you for breathing! You do it so well!” territory. So I bought a big box. And then an even bigger, fancy box because I want space to collect these letters for at least another 20 years.

With my parents getting older, my siblings have stepped up to accompany them to doctor’s appointments and lift heavy boxes and put meals in their freezer for later. I hear about it in the letters I get from my parents, and it adds a new layer of meaning to that word “apart” for me.

But someday, long from now, when those letters stop traversing the miles, I will have this precious archive of letters to share with my family back east. I remind myself that if I hadn’t moved, this box of letters probably wouldn’t exist.

And that’s enough to placate me until to the next visit home.

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4 Responses

  1. Dear So-and-So | Tue Night

    […] Family Archivist: Why I’m the Only One Who Still Writes Letters […]

  2. Ellen

    My mom and I went through some old boxes of letters this summer and found one she’d sent to my grandmother from summer camp and which had come back into her possession when we had cleaned out my grandmother’s house. What a hoot!

    It will be great to have all of those letters to look back on and to share with your girls. I still have many from my grandma in her neat cursive addressed to me at college in Penna. as she would write.

  3. An Open Letter to the Selfie-Stick Wielding Tourists on Alcatraz :: Midlife Mixtape

    […] of letters, I’m speaking about them this week over on Tue/Night. Check out “Family Archivist,” about how the unexpected silver lining of being the faraway satellite to the rest of my […]

  4. alexandra

    I love this, Nancy. I often think how my kids don’t know the thrill of getting mail. My oldest is in college, I send him a care package once a week with a short note inside, but now, I think I’ll start including news clippings from home. I know he’ll have no problem with me sticking in a surprise 20. (great idea)


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