Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Saving Her Voice

Email is my primary communication medium with my far-flung family.  And every now and then, I am shocked into memory and melancholy when I’m searching through my old inbox messages for something random and happen upon the group of messages from my mom, who has been gone three years now.  

She was, among many things, a great correspondent who made the transition from the handwritten note to email rather effortlessly.  She still sent handwritten cards and notes on special occasions or when sending a news clipping.  Our neighborhood priest opened a note from her the day after she died – congratulating him on his well-fought battle against cancer and thanking him for his prayers.  But for the most part, by 2008, email was her main communication tool.

Her death in December 2008 followed on the heels of a staggering diagnosis only 5 short weeks earlier.  From an administrative standpoint, that meant, at the time of her death, I hadn’t yet cleared out my backlog of old emails since about April of that year.  So, as I ventured back to them, intentionally, my clean-up resolution was an exercise in revisiting that unreal year and that surreal winter, as I copied each message from her to a cumulative document for safekeeping.

As I read about the US Postal Service cutting back on delivery frequency to curtail costs, I am reminded of the priceless nature of any scrap of handwritten correspondence from lost loved ones.  The changes at the Post Office are yet another nail in the coffin for the handwritten letter.  I saved very few handwritten notes from my mom or dad, not realizing the time for saving was so short.  The manila envelope she saved for me was chock full of treasures she kept from my childhood, all in my own handwriting – letters from camp, hand-made Mothers’ Day cards, thank you notes and even a long letter in my early adult voice telling her about my new college boyfriend.  We wrote each other every week when I was in college.  And we continued that pretty faithfully once I packed my car and moved 700 miles away.  Oh, to have those letters now.

Thankfully, I still hear her voice in a myriad of other ways and can even reflect on her views in the small collection of columns I have from when she wrote as a guest columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, not that long ago.  There are many documents I own that I can read and feel her hand on my shoulder – especially the book I’ve drafted in whose part she played chief editor and fact source, right up until she died.

My college friend saved a rare letter his father wrote to him not long before his father’s sudden death at 57, just two years after we graduated from college.  I envy him that he can slide that letter out of its envelope and see his father’s handwriting, immediately recalling his face, hands and voice. These letters, recipes, pieces of clothing, silver pins, kitchen utensils, Christmas decorations take on exaggerated value when their original owner exits too early, but the exaggeration is warranted and their value is priceless.

As a resolution for the rest of my lifetime, rather than just this year, I will keep sending handwritten notes to my family.  Especially to my sons and future grandchildren.  And if the Post Office fails me, I’ll be the crazy grandma who delivers handwritten letters in person!

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