Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Tragically Disappearing Value of Letters

I have a letter dated 1852. It is written by an ancestor - Reuben Peacher - to his son-in-law Zachariah Elkins and his daughter Nancy Jane. The young couple, who had been married some three or four years by then (she had been only fifteen, but he almost a decade older), were living only a few counties away, but in an age when there was no email, no phone, no motorized vehicle, it was a few days journey. They both came from large, tight-knit families, and it must have been a big decision to leave; in a few years more, they would join the wagon train on the Oregon Trail, going from Independence, Missouri, to a new home at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

The letter tells us a great deal about them. It is written on light blue, unlined paper. The weight and quality is such that it has survived intact for 164 years. The black, uneven ink pen lines belie the use of a fountain pen. The hand is neat and well-schooled, the grammar good but not perfect. Spelling wasn't yet standardized. Reuben was educated. Zachariah was obviously capable of reading it - although he had been raised in the wilderness of Kentucky and later Missouri. I don't know whether Nancy Jane could not read or whether common custom dictated that the men should write to one another and bypass the women.

At any rate, Reuben had a bit to say, over two pages.  Although the details are mundane, they paint a picture of domestic life for a frontier family, and the very real individuals who lived what we can hardly imagine now. Imagine their world, where one couldn't exist without a horse or a plow or an ax or a rifle or a thorough knowledge of agriculture and hunting. Imagine staining your fingers with ink as you wrote, knowing that news of a death in the family or a new baby would take a week to get there. Imagine that visiting on a whim was impossible - a move across country meant saying goodbye for a very, very long time, if not forever. Imagine that our journeys of a few hours took days or weeks. This is the world the letter allows me to visit - and as I hold it in my hands I wonder about the hands that first made the creases in it and sealed it with wax, and then saddled the horse or hitched him to the wagon, to travel several miles to post it.

The point is, these letters can be held in a hand, my experience of it mingling with a man's of 164 years ago, his skin cells mingling with mine. Letters are a tangible piece of the evidence of lives of the past. And they are quickly fading from our experience.

When I was young, letters were a fact of life. There was no internet, no email. I wrote and received
letters from relatives who lived four states away, across the prairies and cornfields of the Midwest and West. I still have a few of those letters. When I was maybe about ten years old - my favorite grandmother taught me about writing a proper letter.  She said it had to begin with some personal news. Then, a good story - which must include some description or drama or something else of entertainment value to the recipient. And it should end with affection and some plan to write again or to see the loved one again. I have a few of her letters in a box; she's been dead for a few decades now. When I look at them I remember the way she formed words, and the slow, careful way she spoke. She had a wonderful, warm chortle in her voice. I marvel at the uniqueness of her hand and her style.  And I experience her again as an individual and miss her. Without those letters, I don't think I could get so close.

The earliest letters I have read were those written between kings in the early medieval period. Such as letters from Charlemagne, king of Franks (and part of what is now France) and the great Mercian (England) king, Offa. They survive on vellum, a material made from lambskin and dried. They are written in Latin, which in that world enjoyed the universality similar to today's English. They show the personalities, the daily concerns, and the world, of two powerful men in the eighth century. Twelve hundred years ago. I envy the researchers who protect these letters, and who have held them in their hands. A part of me believes that the energy of the past world travels through such objects - what a gift it is to reach back through time and touch the eighth century.

Letters exist between family members, friends and lovers, that reveal details of famous lives. Mozart's wife understood the enormous value of letters to reveal secrets: she burned all of the great musician's letters upon his death. I can almost forgive her - Mozart was mentally ill and so difficult to live with that she had left him years before and they lived apart. But in the end she was there, and his friend, and she had the foresight to protect his privacy.  She robbed us all of a glimpse into his mind and genius, of course.

The great Persian poet, Kahlil Gibran, enjoyed a decades-long romance with a woman through letters. It is believed that although their letters are affectionate and romantic and show devotion and respect, they never met face-to-face.

In December of 2015, a New York man was remodeling the fireplace of this vintage home and found letters over a century old - written by the two young children of an Irish immigrant family that had once lived in the house, to Santa Claus. Ten-year-old Mary's words reveal much about their lives, their values, and the thoughts of a generous-hearted little girl:

"Dear Santa Claus . . . My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to  bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best. - Mary   P.S. Please do not forget the poor. "

Letters reveal the most intimate relationships of the famous people of the past, and also the lives and cares and dreams of people who no one would remember if not for a surviving letter - a bit of a person that survives for decades or centuries beyond death. What are we losing, as we allow the art of letter-writing - in my generation something so common - to fade from our experience?  What are we sacrificing?  How will people, hundreds of years from now, know how we spoke and how our experience of the world around us differed from theirs?  How will they know the things that letters have preserved for us about our past?

They will have books, of course, but letters are different. They are informal, intensely personal, and reveal personality more clearly than any carefully-written prose ever could.  How sad it is that people in the future won't hold the leaves of a letter, with beautiful handwriting and a lingering scent of perfume, in their hands and glimpse the private life of someone else who has passed away?

From now on people will not know the joy of receiving into their hands a personal letter - its paper once handled by the hands of a distant loved one or a lover, the individual's unique handwriting decorating the front. They won't know the surprise of finding a feather, or a piece of lace or fabric, a lock of hair, or other surprise. Or the familiar welcome scent of cigar smoke or perfume. The intimate nature and privacy of a letter is forever lost in the age of computers and emails.  Now, with schools discontinuing the training of children in handwriting skills, future generations won't be able to write a letter if they want to.

I have made a decision that soon I will have that old letter laminated, so that it will survive for decades to come. I won't be able to touch it anymore in the same way, and that bothers me greatly, but it's time to give that up in favor of its preservation. I hope that someone in a coming generation appreciates it as much as I have, and the view of the past and three pioneers' lives, that it offers.



Reuben Peacher lived to old age and is buried in Howard County, Missouri, on the land that once belonged to his farm, from where he wrote the letter and many others. His grave still exists. His own father had come from Virginia and wealth but had been ousted from the family by his father, along with his brother. The two, once the heirs of a rich Eastern family, would eventually be hanged in the wilds of Kentucky for stealing horses. But their children, Reuben and his wife and first cousin Anne, would live the quiet life of farmers in Howard County, Anne preceding her husband in death by a few decades.

Zachariah Elkins took his young family by wagon train to Colorado around 1861. He worked as a cattle rancher on the eastern plains of Colorado Territory, until his death in 1880. In 1870 a census taker asked him what year he was born in, and he wasn't certain, according to a marginal note. But I know now that it was about 1825. Funny that I know and he didn't. He did know that he had been born in Missouri, but when asked where his parents were born he didn't know that either; it was Kentucky - of that I am certain. He died in his fifties, in 1880. His grave has been lost.

Nancy Jane Peacher Elkins was married to the boy who lived on the farm next door, about 1848, at fifteen. It must have been a bittersweet day, because only a few days earlier her 13-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister had both drowned, in the creek that divided the two farms. One can safely assume the brother died trying to save the sister, or the other way around. Several children still survived, including Nancy Jane, and life had to go on. She is buried in Colorado, between her son and his wife on one side, and an infant grandchild on the other. She lived well into her nineties, and was photographed with four younger generations, including my grandmother who is an infant on her lap.

I wonder if they would smile to know that I have and treasure that letter.