When LETTERS Were Signed, Sealed, & Delivered

When I was a girl, my great aunt wrote lengthy letters to my mother about the comings and goings (gossip?) of her large Italian family. They lived in a Southern California coastal town, and in those days it was truly “a world away” from our ranch out in the middle of eastern Colorado. My aunt could take the most mundane events and weave them into “can’t put it down” sagas, typically writing eight to ten full size yellow tablet pages. Because we did not think to keep her letters, they exist now only in our fickle memories.

I once collaborated with author, Barbara Waite who had an extensive collection of journals, written by her grandmother, Elsie. As a turn-of-the-century woman just out of college, Elsie ventured by train from her family home in Long Beach, California to teach school for a year in northern Arizona. The description of this itinerant teacher’s daily life with both the school children and their families in remote areas is fascinating.

Elsie’s collections are not merely diaries. They are colorful reenactments of life as it was just after the turn of the 20th Century. They include a love story that ends in tragedy–more believable than some Christian historical fiction I’ve read. In case you’re interested, the book can be found on Amazon and is entitled Elsie: Adventures of an Arizona School Teacher 1913-1916.  It is enlightening and well worth reading.  Elsie’s journals renewed my appreciation for old letters, especially when flavored with history and times so easily forgotten.

My book, The Prayer that Makes a Difference would not have been possible had it not been for stories and incidents recorded on paper by family members of Oma Van Gelderen. Our minds play tricks on us, and when writing a biography, we are always thankful for written accounts. Most of us have experienced times when one family member disagrees with another about some memorable event. When we come across written accounts, they are not only engaging, they sometimes help prove our side (or theirs) during heated family discussions.

Handwritten letters and postcards are becoming a thing of the past, and as times change our ways of communication, they will eventually be rare antiques. If you have them keep them. They embrace the past in a way that emails and texting cannot rival. And writers benefit from the wealth of information preserved through handwritten collections. When researching early California history, specifically 1900-1910 for a novel I am writing, I was able to purchase a few postcards from eBay. They’re fun to read and now and then help add authenticity to a story.

The way we read may change, but we’ll always read in one form or another. Save those old letters and postcards. You never know when they’ll come in handy.

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