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My mother-in-law left us an unexpected and priceless gift. After she died, my husband and his sister were going through the contents of her house when they discovered, neatly filed and stacked in shoeboxes behind the furnace, every letter that we had written her during our 46-year marriage. The letters were all put back into the envelopes as well, so we have a record of our various residences in Ontario. Equally important, she kept all the letters that my mother had written to her over the years.
During the pandemic, I’ve had time to go through these letters. My handwriting was good when I wrote regularly! It is certainly messier now. I read of our early married life, our struggle to have children and, especially, the progress of our three children from birth to adulthood. I discovered much that I had forgotten. When I experienced the birth of our first child, I was sure that I would remember every detail of his life, but I had forgotten many endearing moments in each of my children’s lives. Our daughter used to run and kiss the framed photo of her grandparents when she was 18 months old; now her own little daughter does the same thing! In fact, we had to laminate a photo for her because she wanted to carry it around the house.
I began transcribing all these details for my children and now they have details of conversations they had when they were small. We can compare their early heights and weights with their own children’s because those details are all documented in the letters. I learned that our firstborn had scored more soccer goals and done better at field days than I remember. I also learned that he was sad when he beat his best friend in the spelling bee. Can I have forgotten so many things?
To read the letters written by my mother to my husband’s mother is a gift. To see her handwriting alone is a treasure. I see two women of a similar generation discussing their physical ailments, saying more to each other than they ever would to us. I see advice and empathy for what is happening around them. I wish that I had saved my mother’s letters to me, but now I have these letters that tell me things about my own mother that I never knew. I see that although Mom and Mamma came from different cultures and different parts of the country, they saw themselves in each other’s eyes and they shared their great love for us, their children, and for our children, their grandchildren.
I come from a long line of letter writers and was trained to stay in touch with our parents, if not weekly, then every 10 days or so. My grandparents came from the Old Country, and they loved to receive letters from across the ocean. My grandfather carried pictures of his absent grandchildren and great-grandchildren in his pocket so that he could look at them every day. When I was away on a student exchange in 1970, my mother told me that my grandfather kept my airmail letters in his shirt pocket and read them daily. Knowing this, I have tried my best to write to our two families regularly.
I am a person who loves getting Christmas letters from friends, and I especially love it if they send the letter by mail inside a card. I can hear their voices and see them again as if we were in the same room. I still send Christmas cards and try to include a personal, handwritten addition to my typed letter.
To all of you who write to me, I thank you: to Heather, who has sent me a letter at Christmas for the past 22 years, to Sarah, who shares my birthdate and wrote me a lovely letter after many years apart, to Nick, who has stamps and paper at the ready, to my nieces and nephews who send written thank you notes for the gifts that I send their children and to all my colleagues and friends who send notes at difficult times. The handwritten word is a powerful tool of friendship; it binds us together.
Perhaps the greatest gift that these letters have given me is to see how much my husband’s parents needed and cherished our letters to them. They could not throw them away. We lived far from them, and although we saw them regularly, it is not the same as living in the same city. I can imagine my mother-in-law taking the time to browse through the boxes once in a while when she was in the basement doing the laundry. The letters helped her to know her grandchildren and to feel part of our lives. I shall file them and organize them for my children so that they can read the events of our lives and know that they, too, were cherished. As a result of seeing these old letters of mine, I have vowed to start a correspondence with my own grandchildren.
Keep writing to those you love. Those letters are our greatest gift to each other.
Andrea Battista lives in Burlington, Ont.
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