I just discovered a hidden treasure trove. I’m glad I didn’t give into the urge to purge. I almost tossed old sympathy letters unread. What relevance, I wondered, could I possibly find in condolence letters written to my now-deceased mother-in-law nearly fifty years ago when her husband died? What a surprise to find that I’m learning so much from reading between the lines.
I hardly knew my father-in-law, Ezra Lippincott. We never lived near them and had only been married six years when he died. Quite likely he found his son’s young wife as baffling as I found him. We never connected. My mother-in-law Blanche often spoke of memories involving him, but they usually included other people and things they did, and I still had little sense of what Ezzie was like.
Now I’m reading these letters, beautiful tributes from friends, colleagues and customers. “A remarkable human being.” “He was always there when anyone needed help.” “We’ll miss him terribly.” Some shared memories that I’ve never heard before. From these word scraps my dim, fuzzy picture, formed mainly from pictures and bare-bones stories, is fleshing out just a bit. He’s becoming more real.
As I read and consider, I’m reminded of three things of relevance for all of us who write:
People are naturally curious.
They want to know details. When we record the past in story form, we try our best to cover the basics and give a complete account. We may not know all the facts. We may run out of time and not finish the story. If this happens, don’t fret. Do the best you can. Someday someone may read whatever you were able to write and connect the dots, as I’m doing now. Their picture will sharpen from clues you do give.
People read between the lines.
Right now I’m filling in blanks in my image of Ezzie. I’m also reading between the lines to imagine how Blanche may have felt as she read these shimmering tributes. I did not know her well either at that time, and neither of us was good at expressing emotion. I had only a foggy notion what she was really going through, and I was too busy chasing my toddlers to give it much thought. Suddenly her loss seems poignantly real, and I grieve for that loss as I read.
I’m sorting because we’re preparing to sell our house and move from Pittsburgh to Austin. My intention is to lighten the load. But now that I’ve read these notes, I see that they are pieces of heart. Not only do they give a clearer picture of Ezzie, but they document the way people communicated back then – with pen and ink. They wrote and mailed deeply heart-felt messages. Only a few sent cards. I may scan the the messages in, but I’ll still save the originals. Some later generation can decide whether to continue keeping or toss.
For now, I’ll just finger my newly found treasures. Maybe later I’ll use some of these scraps in a story or few.
Write now: if you have old letters or photos, look through them. See what dots connect or how you read between lines to notice things more clearly today than you did in earlier times. Write a story about what you fine.