Does anyone remember letters the way I do? Seeing the envelope come through the slot, or waiting in one’s cubby or the mailbox, and knowing something wonderful might be inside? Opening it up and sitting down with a sigh of pleasure to read the latest news?
My Uncle Bruce was the best letter writer I’ve ever known. He was an archaeologist, a gifted artist, collector, linguist, traveler and observer of life. He never married, but doted on his seven nieces and nephews and their clans. When not off to teach, on a dig, or visiting friends in far flung places, he lived in the middle of 23 acres near the ocean. The natural world was a major force in his life, and he wrote about it often.
Several years ago the family began to clean up and clear out our house in Rhode Island. Decades of Bruce’s letters to and from family, friends and colleagues emerged. What a capacity for friendship he had. He was warm, thoughtful, gentle, courteous in conversation and generous in his relationships. But he gave so much of himself in a letter. Once past the hurdle of deciphering his handwriting, the contents were yours to savor: detailed, insightful, humor-filled news from wherever he was, reports of family doings and foibles, the natural world outside his door, wonderful sketches, his take on politics, human behavior, books he had read, movies seen, music listened to, and clippings he had saved just for you.
Away at school at 13 I loved his letters because they were long, interesting, often snarky, and best of all, frequent.
It wasn’t until much later that I recognized how loving they were, how much family glue he slipped into them, along with gentle admonishments and guidance, and the fruits of his considerable intellect. While he hated confrontation, he did not shrink from the truth as he saw it, and he never hesitated to express his opinions in a letter, as he did when he wrote:
“In my 9th decade of life on this orb I have grown to appreciate and respect and crave long letters more and more and more as I come to realize that such mirrors of life and doings and… human gregarious activity… are all too rare and getting rarer… e-mail, faxes and the despicable, lazy, vaporous telephone life are… very poor substitutes for a family’s lore and tellings… the stuff of one’s decency and character and outlook on the world, what helps get us through the rat-race! Honestly, I savor and need such letters to make up for not being on the jittery-dithering-frantic mainstream of family telephoning and so-called ‘news’.”
To hold a piece of his chrome yellow paper is to bring him back, if only for an instant. In my mind’s eye these letters and the memory of his presence glow warmly in the hearts of all of us, bright evidence of a remarkable man’s great capacity for friendship, connection and love.