40 years ago today my dad wrote this letter to his dad from the island of Crete, where he and my mom were living for a few months while traveling around Europe in their VW bus. He found it amidst my Grandpa’s stamp collection, ostensibly saved there due to its interesting Greek aerogramme postage. Reading this letter was like being given a glimpse into my own history. You see my parents had decided to make me on Crete so I was a tiny fetus snug in my mom’s womb on March 29, 1970. My dad’s descriptions of Crete in Spring as a paradise of wildflowers, friendly people, and fresh oranges made me cry, mostly out of appreciation that I could read what this era of family lore was like for him at the time.
I also began to think, once again, about how much memory and history will be lost in this generation of digital transition. When my husband and I traveled in Europe for several months in 2003 my dad the graphic designer diligently saved and typeset all my emails to him. He gave them to me as a booklet when we returned to the States. How sweet to have those emails, those travel records, but who else does that? I have followed my friends travels via email and Facebook but haven’t gotten a postcard or letter from anyone overseas in ages. We are losing out here and so are our kids and grandkids and those historians who will want to use our correspondence as primary sources.
Traveling heightens the senses and inspires me to write and share what I am experiencing. Travel writing, both in letters and diaries, is its own colorful tradition and genre. I hope that we can find a way to save these words, whether they are written on paper or pixels.
I saw the trailer for the movie, Dear John, on TV a while back and it caught my fleeting interest because it seemed like the story had some correspondence between a soldier and the girl back home during wartime. But it was one of our wars and they weren’t using email or Skype. Blame it on sleep deprivation or wishful thinking but when I saw the book that the movie is based on at the bookstore I bought it, without so much as cracking the cover to see if there were any letters inside. This book was not what I had hoped. There is one letter in it, and the rest is the boring schmaltz of the Nicholas Sparks mileau, of which I had been previously ignorant. I kind of wish I had remained so.
So you can imagine the pleasure I felt upon opening up a book in the children’s section of the library called Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson and finding an entire story made up of letters. “Dear John” was dull compared to 12 year old Lonnie’s letters to his little sister Lily while they are living in separate foster care families in Brooklyn. After the death of their parents, Lonnie, aka Locomotion, tries to stay connected to his little sister by writing letters to her and being “the rememberer” of the family while they are apart. In the process he shares with her his thoughts about family, friendship, war, and peace. The story is beautiful and I strongly recommend it for middle school age kids. Or people like me who like to read letters.
Do you have any favorite books that include letters?
They’re here. And by here I mean the internet, at usps.com. Or at your local post office, if you’re lucky. My friend Hope wrote that she bought the last 3 sheets at her post office in Vermont, where they sold out in 2 days. Artists include Willem De Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, and Mark Rothko. And apparently they’re big, which could make for some interesting envelope composition. I am on it.