“August 10, 1961
Dear Mom and Dad: Frank and I are composing this letter to both sets of parents and we are mailing them on the same day. We have decided that we want to get married sometime in November after our bellhop and waitressing jobs at the Grand Hotel are finished when it closes in late September. We will stay out of classes at Indiana University for a year, working the Miami Beach Hotel/Pinehurst/Grand Hotel circuit and returning to IU in the fall semester of 1962 for my junior year and Frank's senior year.”
That was the first paragraph of a letter that definitely worried our parents. The entire letter was full of a strange mix of innocence, ignorance and adventure. This letter was handwritten, of course, saved by my mom for many years. I retrieved it recently as I sorted through stacks of my family's letters to me and to other family members.
That letter was the first step of an amazing first year of marriage, and those handwritten words brought back memories of excitement, bravado and fear. As we had promised, we returned to college, graduation and further schooling.
It occurred to me that those exact memories would not have reappeared in such detail for me without that letter, penned so many years ago.
I am beginning to wonder whether my generation will be one of the last to have the joys of sending and receiving handwritten letters, then discovering some many years later.
My mother and her two sisters were prolific letter writers, using prose to decry the actions of the president at the time, to brag or complain about their children and husbands, and to express their constant concern for their dear mother who lived with us. All of these women were well schooled in the art of writing, and it was on display in all the letters I have read.
About 10 years ago, I received a treasure box of letters from my cousin. This cousin, daughter of my mom's sister, Mary, found this box in an attic after her mother and mine had died. The letters were written by my mother to her sister Mary, and they told stories I never knew. They were emotional for me to read because they showed a “sister side” of my mom. I only knew the “mommy side.” Many of the letters spoke of frustrations and dreams my mom would never have shared with me.
One of those letters informed me of a story of my heritage that had never been shared with me. As background, I had lived near Evansville with my mom, dad, brother, grandmother and great aunt in our family homeplace, originally built of logs in 1840 by my great, great grandfather Levi. The story I did know best was that Levi was a member of the Underground Railroad. Amelia, his wife, and Levi received escaping slaves, hid them in a safe place in the woods, fed and clothed them, and then transferred them by dray in the middle of the night to the next safe location. I learned this story early in my life and felt great pride every time it was told.
The story I didn't know until I read Aunt Mary's letter to my mom was about Rebecca, for whom I was named. It is a story that balanced out my exuberant pride in the Underground Railroad story.
In 1858, Rebecca married a young parson named Henry, and they lived in Deerfield, Virginia. When her husband was transferred to a church in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the young family left Deerfield along with Rebecca's personal maid named Dulcie, a young slave girl who had grown up with her.
When I read those words, I was shocked and ashamed. I just sat and stared at the letter. I had always assumed that our family had completely Northern roots with strong anti-slavery opinions. I would not have known this story at all had it not been for my reading the letter describing these lives.
The letter went on to say that “war was in the air and anti-slavery feeling was running high. The Methodist congregation of the new appointment was so scandalized about a slave in their new minister's family that Rebecca had to send Dulcie back to Deerfield.” Rebecca and Henry had seven children and legend has it that Rebecca often lamented, “Oh, if I could just have Dulcie to help me.”
These letters are valuable pieces of my past. I am so thankful that my mother and her two sisters saved family letters and stories. Personal, handwritten letters can change lives, mend lives, bring clarity, create pain and invoke memories, but first they have to be written, sent and saved.
My challenge to you is to think of someone who would love to receive a handwritten letter from you. Maybe tell a story, just touch base or tell someone you love them.
I guarantee 50 years from now someone will find that letter and read it and know a little more about you and about the intended receiver. It's time to fill the inkwell.
Becky Hill is retired executive director of the YWCA and former member of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board of trustees.