Thursday, September 21, 2006
Letters kept us together and connected
Auntie Fran was the family member who kept us all in touch. That is, she was the letter writer, because in my family telephone calls were rare. Telephones were for bad news, and besides, all the principals were deaf. What good was a telephone?
It helps if the family letter-writer gets up early, and that my Auntie Fran most assuredly did. She was up an hour or more before the rest of her household, cooked wonderful breakfasts, wrote those letters, and communed with nature and God. To those who have the inclination, getting up early is a wonderful thing. The world seems beautiful and at peace.
Auntie Fran’s Audubon bird guide, which she kept in the breakfast room by the big picture window testifies to much use. In southern Illinois a great many species could be seen by the alert observer. Auntie Fran’s letters often referred to many of these — often spotted while she sat at her window with morning coffee and wrote.
She was mother’s sister by marriage. She and mother’s brother, my Uncle Bill, died last spring, both at the age of 101. They were married in 1930. You can guess how many records they set. Auntie Fran was very modest about it all. “A birthday party? My dear, no! Then people might guess how old we are!”
Proverbs and Bible verses filled her letters. She wrote on a small, blue portable typewriter — hunt and peck style — sentences with no subjects and lots of dashes — gathering at Doudna’s Saturday morning — fresh peaches at market today — wish I could make a freezer of ice cream like your mother’s. That sort of thing. Simple family news.
Auntie Fran was always busy. Sort of a Republican Eleanor Roosevelt, if I could put it that way. She loved to travel. But most of all she loved people. Her house was always full of them. Nobody could put on a simple brunch that brought young and old together like she did in the little college town where my uncle was a member of the faculty.
I remember how my cousin and I looked forward to “chaperoning” our grandmother on the train to Illinois for summer visits. Poor Grandmother had to rest after those outings with us. I am sure the train conductors were glad to be rid of us, too. Those train stories are for another day -- my point is that Auntie Fran made sure we came, and got us together with our little cousins (her granddaughters) from New York, whom we would probably not have otherwise known due to the geographic distances that separated us.
Auntie Fran had everything small boys enjoyed. A wonderful wire-haired fox terrier to be our pal, a pony across the back fence (it belonged to a neighbor), picnics to the Lincoln log cabin, and after church on Sunday, to a wonderful, woodsy state park called Turkey Run in Indiana, which you drove to for miles and miles on a quirky one-lane brick highway that took you across the state line into the Hoosier country.
Other days we would go to visit the Amish at nearby Arthur, Ill., take Grandmother shopping at the mall — a new thing for us country folks — in Champaign, or celebrate the Fourth of July on the town square — buffalo burgers, although my cousin and I declined to have one! Then there were the fireworks at the big townwide fireworks show. Charleston, Ill. was a little place, but people in Illinois are great ones for July 4 celebrations — none of that “fall of Vicksburg” reticence about celebrating our nation’s holiday there. (Besides, in Mississippi it is just too hot!)
Then there was the year the church was to have an outdoor picnic, for which Auntie Fran had made a huge pan of spaghetti. It was rained out, and my cousin and I were amazed at all the fun ways Auntie Fran found to re-heat and re-invent the dish, so that before we left, we had eaten that entire pan of spaghetti! It became a family joke, and she joined in the fun.
I have saved stacks and stacks of Auntie Fran’s letters. Many were written on Sunday mornings before church. Auntie Fran seemed to think that communication with family was a good preparation for communion with God. And remember, we were her in-laws. But she sent out her news and greetings to one and all. I always felt as close to her as any of my aunts and uncles by blood relation.
We receive different things from those who have gone before. I will remember certain books that Auntie Fran and Uncle Bill gave me — one about the Rev. Peter Marshall, the famous minister in Washington — gave a wonderful role model for an aspiring minister — yes, Auntie Fran thought I should become a minister, and encouraged me long before anyone else — and somehow I felt free confiding my thoughts to her as well about those things.
But I will always cherish the letters. “Just news” they were. But they connected our family and kept us together over the years and across the miles. Perhaps that is why our Christian scriptures have all those epistles. “Just letters” they were. But what a legacy they have bequeathed to us. Always save your letters. They are a rare gift in today’s world.
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