I was a baby when my maternal grandmother passed away. I’ve been told that, within hours of succumbing to ovarian cancer, Grandma Wilma held me tenderly for a few minutes, bestowing kisses and expressing gratitude for the chance to have been a grandmother, if only for a year. I always felt like I’d sorely missed out by not knowing her. Then, one day just a couple of years ago, my mother handed me a dusty, cardboard box crammed with old, well-thumbed letters. (My uncle found the box amongst my grandparents’ few, remaining possessions, and managed to put the letters—nearly 1,000 in total—into sequential order.) Some of them are between Wilma and her parents, but most of the near-daily correspondence is an intimate exchange between my grandparents (pictured at right, at my parents' wedding in 1967). The love letters span a full twenty years (1926-1946), beginning with their initial, long-distance courtship and ending while in the throes of raising a young family. Needless to say, I was—and am—incredibly grateful. Out of all the things that could have been saved, this was something truly invaluable…something personal…something that offered a second chance.
Although the volume was daunting (it took months to read through the box's fragile, yellowed innards), the reward was having my grandmother materialize before my eyes. She was no longer the rather ambiguous subject of faded photos, second-hand stories, and bittersweet conversations with my mother. Wilma had colorized into a whole person—daughter, sister, teacher, friend, lover, wife, mother, and survivor of life’s innumerable triumphs and tragedies. Solely through the written word, I became privy to her inner-most hopes, thoughts, and feelings, and grew to understand the choices and sacrifices she made, as well as the logic and emotion that accompanied it.
Given Wilma's demure, quiet nature (admittedly, that's a trait that does not fall into our 'similiarities' category), it's somewhat surprising that the letters still exist. I think it would have been easy for my grandmother to have simply junked them, especially when she became terminally ill. I can imagine making the (wrong) assumption that the letters—and all thoughts and feelings connected to them—weren't of enough significance to keep. Or that, by tossing them, she’d be saving her family the time and "hassle" of cleaning out her personal belongings once she was gone.
Yet, instead of fetching a garage can, Grandma Wilma found a box, tidied up her mountain of letters, and allowed her humanity—her ideas, vulnerabilities, and inner-most self— to endure well beyond her lifetime. (It’s worth noting that my grandfather proceeded to keep the letters safely tucked away until his own death 18 years later.) To me, leaving that simple, unmarked box behind was a brave thing to do. When I hold one of her letters, I feel an intangible sense of faith and hope in the future's “unknown”—including me, and all those who would (and will) come after. In general, I respect anyone who is willing to leave a truthful foothold to the past, as it not only allows us to “relive” it, as Florence Littauer suggests above (if we so choose), but, more importantly, I think—to learn from it. All of it—the "good," the "bad," and every twist and turn in between. If we keep open the door to history's both profound and subtle lessons, our present thoughts and future actions cannot help but abide with greater tolerance, intention, and authenticity.