I discovered hidden treasures while combing through my mother’s belongs after her passing. Not only did my mother hide pockets of cash and coins throughout the house (about $1,000 in total!), but also something even more valuable- old letters.
There are few stories as cherished as those which shed a welcome light on our family history and help shape our identity.
An old paper bag in my mother’s chest contained letters dating as far back as 1864! Of course, they were all hand-written and some were practically illegible. I spend hours reading over them again and again, realising how much we can learn from history in these letters. Like what?
I learned that, for example, in 1903 you could buy a bed for $2.50 in Erskine, Minnesota. We found my great-grandfather’s 8-page statement from the general store. Many items we hardly use today like clothes pins (.05 cents/2 dozen), washtubs (.75 cents) and thimbles (.10 cents). Someone bought a pair of ice skates right before Christmas for $1.25. One relative worked for $20/month. I was intrigued to learn that fine Christmas presents in 1900 included such things as bun pins (for hair) and cuff buttons. You could milk a cow and get .05 cents/quart. You could sell grapes for 1 1/2 cents/lb. and peaches for .35 cents/basket. In 1893, a teacher would refer to her students as scholars in New York. My, how times have changed.
In an age of instant messaging, it is baffling to read these letters and imagine that such news as births, deaths, change of addresses would take weeks to get to the recipient. Most of the letters were about the mundane daily grind; quilting, canning, plowing, thrashing, weather, and health matters. Newspaper clippings were essential. I would find an occasional letter with a good piece of gossip, such as a grieving daughter describing how her father’s wife did not pass the inheritance after his death, and even gave a false testimony to get a county burial so the widow-hag wouldn’t have to pay from her own money. Another cousin described a friendship he had struck with some Indians in Oklahoma, and they had given him a present of two woven blankets.
What impressed me the most was the great care and courtesy taken in words and the amazing penmanship. A salutation from a wife…”Yours, till death do us part” or a greeting would be to “My Esteemed Friend, It affords me pleasure to try to reply to your good letter”.
Here is a quote from a woman whom my grandfather did NOT marry (Myrtle):
Please pardon me for saying this, but I have the highest esteem for you, consider you a confidential friend and take undue privileges in speaking and writing to you; all because you are a man who doesn’t care so much for the girls, but whose uppermost thought and purpose in life is in the service of the Master. I am not worthy of such a friend…You spoke of the picnic in your community and asked if I would go to a “picnic”. Yes. I think there is no harm in going to a nice well planned well conducted picnic. One furnished with religions, educational or pure political speaking. (I have not been to a picnic this year and such one as I am describing is not of heard of in this country; you know!) It is a shame on Christian America, on ourselves, that far too many of our picnics are on the order of the one you described [horse riding, racing, probably gambling and drinking beer.
Certainly, I think it is very wrong for a Christian to attend such as that. It would look to the world like we enjoyed and approved such things. Belittling Christ. Lowering our Christianity to a level with the world. A pure Christian will not go to and enjoy those worldly amusements. If he goes, he lays aside his pure Christianity, Christ-likeness, and goes with a worldly heart and mind and continues with them until he goes to God and seeks forgiveness, be it a day after he goes, three days, a month, the next revival season or at the judgement. . . .”
Here are some quotes from the lady that my grandfather DID marry (Cleo):
My dearest boy- I got your letter and was sure pleased…I looked for you Tuesday evening until way after dark and didn’t even give up hope of your coming until I fell asleep. I climbed the wind mill at dusk and looked and looked for my boy, sometimes I thought I could see you then I couldn’t, I wanted to see somebody so bad I didn’t know what to do, at eight or after I walked down to the fence to meet you dear but it was so dark I hated to go any farther alone…My how I have longed for the time when neither you or I would be alone…Dear I sure missed seeing you but when your letter came I knew why and keep looking forward to Sunday and believe me I sure will make for lost time…I look forward to when we will be happy together. I will try and do those things you sent me and make you a happy home and happy man, dear, and I know you will be everything,
on this earth to me.[sic]
It is easy to visualize the differences between these two women; Myrtle is on her high horse while Cleo, clinging to the top of a windmill while scanning the horizon, is simply and desperately in-love. You can see why he married Cleo, my mother’s mother.
The letter that touched me the most, in my grief, was from a widow named Rose in Spring Valley, Minnesota, 1902. She describes his death in great detail, but begins with this:
It is 4 months the 12th yesterday since my love passed into the full glory of the Father-whose image he truly was. I worshipped my husband. I would have rather have been his wife than the wife of any earthly King. I fully appreciated his grand, noble nature, his purity and goodness. “Clean hand and a pure heart” were his. We were so happy together! We cherished every moment of our life together- knowing it would at best- be short. My life seems literally torn in two,
and I don’t know how to go on without him…
During numerous visits between relatives and my mom before she passed, I was anxious to cut through the small talk about the weather and get to the good stuff– their shared stories.
As I hold and read these old letters, I am beholding the words of those all dead and gone. But I am gripped by their courage in trials and troubles. I miss my mother, just as those in all these letters from all over America expressed their feelings to one another.
There are however lots of differences between what I am writing and what they wrote. With a couple clicks of a machine, I can so effortlessly send my typed words to hundreds and hundreds of friends and loved ones all over the world.
Holding you all in the highest esteem.
Gratefully Yours Today and Always,
(This article is reposted from my previous blog, bohemiantapestry-mylife.com, dated March 2009.)