Ed. — From the Sunday, March 27, print edition.
VIRGINIA BEACH — My husband and I are amid what once was called “spring cleaning” – except we’re not so much cleaning as we are “emptying out.” You see, I made the mistake of listening to a book on tape about tidying up, which set a ball rolling that now can’t be stopped.
We’re tidy people. We don’t leave stacks of stuff piled around to be done tomorrow (well, not very often). We put things away every night because we like to wake up to the peace an orderly household provides.
However, what I recently realized is that while our counters, tables and desks may be free of clutter, our closets, drawers and filing cabinets are in no way Pinterest-worthy. They are stuffed, overburdened, packed with things that don’t work, we don’t need and that someone else might find useful. Nevertheless, I found some things that just can’t be discarded – family letters.
My family has always stayed connected through the U.S. Postal Service. My grandparents and I started this tradition when I was in my twenties. I lived in New Jersey then, and they were in Pennsylvania. They had moved from the family home to a nearby retirement village, and I suppose the cleaning out they did sparked memories that begged to be written down.
I have always enjoyed a good family story, and my grandparents’ stories were especially precious to me because I was a student of folklore. I started a correspondence with my grandparents that lasted until their deaths many years later. My grandparents told me their life stories in letters I kept and recently found while tidying up our filing cabinets, which we moved from one house to another without so much as a glance inside.
Last weekend, my tidying agenda discarded like so much trash, I stood in my kitchen and “listened” to my grandparents share their wisdom with me. These old letters, yellowed and crisp now with age and time, some from my grandfather, others from my grandmother, are not random meanderings through the past. Instead, they are carefully crafted responses to my questions about the lives they led, together and apart. What I discovered in my grandparents’ letters are life lessons meant to withstand the test of time.
In retrospect, I realized that any question I asked of them in my own letter they answered with a story rich in ancient knowledge learned through their experiences in the world. They would take my questions, often influenced by what was happening in my own life, and figure what I needed in the stories they returned to me.
I recall, on occasion, reading their stories and wondering how what they wrote addressed my original question. But now I see how wise they were. Invariably, their storied answers gave me insight into my own life – how to address challenges I faced, how to deal with heartache, how to accept disappointment, how to wallow in joy and release sorrow, how to look on each experience as a precious gift to savor and save for another time.
As I held my grandparents’ letters in my hands, I thought, sadly, that the art of the letter may be lost on this generation. Then I realized that there are other places in my house where letters are evidence that this is not the case.
My father and my youngest son have their own tradition of letter writing. For years, they’ve kept our mail carrier busy with a regularly raised red flag on our mailbox. The correspondence between my father and my son has waxed and waned over the years, but I’ve kept almost every letter my father has sent this way.
I did not have time to reread all the letters my grandparents wrote me or those my father wrote my son — these many letters I have locked away in that cabinet or rubber-banded in boxes. But I did not put them back this time to be found some other year, some other spring cleaning. I have them here on my desk, a priceless pile worth keeping.
Perhaps tidying up isn’t meant for all things.
The author is a writer, former Virginia Beach planning commissioner and professor who lives in Ashville Park. Contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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