My cousin Helen lived in such an exotic place. Or at least I thought so as a child. For one thing, we had to go through New York City to get there, craning our necks as we passed the Empire State Building. Also, Helen and her sisters ate pizza and lived only half an hour from Long Island’s beaches.
Each week my mother and I eagerly anticipated a letter from Aunt Mildred in Centereach, Long Island, New York. Through those letters, I gleaned not only tidbits about my cousins’ lives, but also an uncensored view of what church planting was really like in the 1950’s, far from the sheltered assumptions at the center of the Franconia Mennonite Conference in southeastern Pennsylvania. I do wish my Mom had kept those letters chronicling Curt and Mildred Godshall’s joys and struggles.
We cherished other letters from afar also. Occasionally one arrived from Cuba, where my much older cousin Betty King and her husband Aaron ministered as a revolution unfolded around them.
We also heard from England, where Mom’s cousin Miriam Leatherman and her husband Quintus were hosts at the London Mennonite Centre. (We never told them that the fruit cake they sent each Christmas always arrived in little pieces.)
Later, in my 40’s and my 60’s, I relished hearing about family members from before the time I was born, reading letters which someone had saved.
When I was 43, I learned to know my maternal grandparents, Magdelena (Maggie) Moyer and Irvin Derstine, through increasingly serious “pre-courting” letters they wrote to each other in the year 1900. Prior to reading those letters, I remembered my grandfather Irvin only as an old man sitting in a chair with one leg amputated.
Since Maggie died when my mother was 10 years old, my discovery of her via young adult letters was an enormous gift. I glimpsed her traveling to Sunday school conferences in western Pennsylvania, and visiting girlfriends all over the place. I found in my grandmother a soul mate who helped “explain” some of my own impulse toward church leadership. (See #24 – Maggie Uncovered for more on Maggie.)
The few “courting letters” from my Dad to my Mom in 1922-1924 are a hoot! He wrote mostly about his adventures walking home to Souderton late at night from dates at her farm near Sellersville. Or about escapades with his Chevrolet sedan in a snowstorm…what it was like to be “the first machine to go through” on a snow-covered country road where they had to make their own tracks. I recognized in his writing a jaunty voice I heard him use years later when he was trying to impress people!
My Mom’s weekly letters to my older cousin Roy in Civilian Public Service camps in 1943 gave me a glimpse of our household, of the family feed mill, and of life in Souderton during World War II.
I learned that my then 16-year-old brother Jim had a paper route and sang in a chorus. I wasn’t surprised to read that after my Dad worked at the mill “until late” one January night, he tried unsuccessfully to fix the furnace when he arrived home. I was reminded of my Mom’s fondness for homemade ice cream. I found out that she frequently fed and lodged CO’s who came to help out at the feed mill in addition to their work at Norristown State Hospital.
I cherish the memories created by reading these letters and by finding old greeting cards. They give me the “feel” of my family before I was part of it and when I was a child. They nourish my soul. I’m grateful to my Mom and other family members for saving them.
I wonder…in the age of instant communication via social media and smart phones, how will future generations learn such things about us? How will they get glimpses of our traits and our everyday lives? How will they know what was important to us?
Questions for Reflection: How – if at all – have old family letters or diaries nourished your soul? What have you gleaned from them that’s important for you now?
How will future generations know what has been important to you?
Next Week: The Joy of Anticipation