Dear Ms. Spiritual Matters,
I live in the Midwest. Fall is a time when farming families and friends get together to harvest grain, squash and other foods and to put the produce away for feasting during the winter months. There are always many crates of apples for apple pie and squash for casseroles—all placed in the cool cellar. I was surprised, last week, when I received an unexpected harvesting of words not foods.
A bulging envelope came in the mail. It was filled with some of my sister’s harvest of letters written by our mother and father. Unbeknownst to me, my sister saved the notes mom and dad had sent her over decades. Why did she alone have these letters? Because she was the only child who had moved away for college. I never left our home city. So, our parents had no need to write me.
What got my sister to do this harvesting? She had begun to downsize. She read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. This author states that culling memorabilia is the hardest task because it involves a lot of time and emotion. The note my sister sent in the envelope said she spent what she described as a couple of tear-stained weeks reading through Rubbermaid containers of letters she had moved across the continent always hoping to enjoy rereading them in “her old age.”
I began to read the letters and could not stop. I witnessed the passage of time because the letters spoke of both my sister’s life and my life. The words commented on our marriages, the births of our children, illnesses, and deaths in the family and of friends of our parents. Obituaries were clipped out of newspapers and tucked into the folds of letters within the envelopes. These were people whose lives touched my parents.
I saw how, as the years went on, my mother’s handwriting became more scratchy and ill-formed. Her letters got shorter in length. I suspected writing became harder for her. As I read, I wondered how my mother felt when she could no longer make the beautiful script characteristic of the writing of her younger days. I now grieved her loss and was embarrassed that I was ignorant of this “little death” for her at the time it happened. I wished I had talked with my mother when she experienced the inevitable declines accompanying aging. My sister’s harvesting of letters made me look back and wonder if my lack of mindfulness troubled my mother.
I felt privileged to read the hand-printed letters my father wrote. Leaving school in the eighth grade to work on the family farm, he never had the opportunity to learn the cursive form of writing. Each letter he penned ended with boldly inked words, “Think, plan, study, work, play and pray—the message that he so often told us at the start of a day. These words were his conviction about life and contained his heart and wisdom. Now, as I read his letters, I wish I had told him that he was a wise man.
Perusing through the words of my mother and father was an undertaking intermingled with significant joy and considerable sadness. Like my sister, my cheeks burned with tears as memories flooded forth. Life had not dealt us a bad suit. We did not have a lot of possessions. But, we had good lives.
What can I say to my sister to capture the magnitude of the gift she gave me by harvesting through the letters and culling some out for me?
A letter, a photo, a card—presence from the past can become a present to others.
Your sister’s harvesting of letters has made a difference in how you look at your past. How you connect with your feelings and what thoughts come to your mind as you read may alter your perspective and the manner in which you lead the rest of your life.
Yes, there are lessons to be learned from harvesting. We learn what is important to keep and that which does us good to give away. And one of the most profound messages bequeathed by this harvesting is that you and your sister are inextricably yet, differently, connected to a shared past.
You are fortunate your sister did not leave the words of your parents sit silent in Rubbermaid containers. She gave you a gift—your parents’ voices connecting their generation to yours and beyond.
You might send her a handwritten note with a simple statement like: “I love what you did in giving me some of mom’s and dad’s letters. Your gift will always be with me. Your act of sharing reminds me how much I love you.” Your words may bring more tears to your sister’s eyes as she reads another letter from a person important in her life.
Susan Schoenbeck holds Baccalaureate and Master’s degrees in nursing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an experienced educator and teaches nursing students at Walla Walla University — Portland, Oregon campus. She is an oblate of a Benedictine Monastery where she learned centering and contemplative meditation practices. She is author of the book, Zen and the Art of Nursing, Good Grief: Daily Meditations, and Near-Death Experiences: Visits to the Other Side.