My brother Cooper and I were young and puzzled. Our mother Shirley and her older sister Charlotte sometimes talked about “Dear Momma” and “Dear Poppa.” Who were they?
Mom explained, “When we were little girls, we saw our mother writing letters. Charlotte and I asked her, ‘Who are you writing to?’ And our mother told us, ‘To Dear Momma and Dear Poppa.’” That is, my grandmother Eva Lissner wrote to her parents, Esther and Lehman Michelson of Gonzales, Texas. So granddaughters Shirley and Charlotte forever referred to their grandparents as Dear Momma and Dear Poppa.
I always associate this story with the fast-vanishing grace of letter writing. Esther and Lehman, my great-grandparents, were born in the 1860s, so the family chain of devoted correspondents goes way back. In my mind's eye, my grandmother Eva saw her mother Esther writing to her mother Charlotte (my aunt's namesake) and back into time’s embracing mist.
I remember Mom’s weekly letters to Aunt Charlotte, and in college I wrote home weekly. Whenever I missed a cycle, my mother quickly let me know. After Mom died in 1984, I kept writing, now addressing letters to Aunt Charlotte. Mom had been living with her sister in Tyler, Texas, so I didn’t even have to update the address.
Each week – usually on a Monday to recap the drama of my New York weekends (think Sex and the City without the sex) – I wrote to Aunt Charlotte. She wrote to me in a distinctive handwriting marked by Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a neurological degeneration of the hands and feet that runs in the family.
I saved every single letter, scores written from 1984 to Aunt Charlotte’s death in 1997.Together, her letters and mine comprise what I call the Charlotte Chronicles. I keep her letters bound, with others, in twine in boxes, while copies of my letters to her reside in a three-ring binder.
Aunt Charlotte found my tales so entertaining that she circulated them among other family members. God forbid I slacked off on my scheduled postings, lest I get a somewhat irate phone call from her. Now, you have to keep in mind that Aunt Charlotte spoke with a pure East Texas drawl, colored by decades in the piney woods of Tyler, the “Rose Capital of the World.” She pronounced my one-syllable first name as two syllables, akin to “Vaa-yun.”
So, when the letter failed to pop up in Tyler in reasonable time, she would call and ask, “Vaa-yun, where’s my letter?” I got the message and got back to writing. A letter on May 18, 1997, alluded to her enquiries. I wrote, “Dear Aunt Charlotte, Thanks for the call today. I have been meaning to write but things have been hectic at work – not frantic, but enough to keep me occupied.”
What’d she write about? She told me of visits with friends, the comings and goings of her children and grandchildren, and celebrities like Andy Rooney when they spoke in Tyler, and she sent clippings from the Dallas Morning News. In one letter from 1987, typed on “Saturday night, 9:30,” she wrote, “Dear Van, After The Golden Girls, there is nothing on Sat. nite TV that I look forward to. I howl over The Golden Girls – Reminds me of the way Daddy used to laugh over Jack Benny.”
On June 19, 1988, she reflected on her marriage to Uncle Bill, a lawyer with whom she had three children, my cousins Bill, Linda and Jared. She wrote, “Last night I had Linda’s family come for dinner; it would have been have been Bill’s and my 50th wedding anniversary. Though he is gone, I gave thanks for good years – he was a fine man – loved country, Mother and apple pie.”
What really got Aunt Charlotte revved up was Wall Street, in her role as my personal one-woman CNBC. While Mom and Aunt Charlotte were both stock market buffs, Aunt Charlotte was the hard-core wheeler-dealer. In the pre-computer era, she created her own stock-price charts by hand, an astonishing feat for a woman with crippled fingers. She peppered her stockbroker with questions, and could snap on the radio to KRLD-AM in Dallas at exactly the right instant to catch the noon stock report.
Attending my Princeton graduation in 1980, Aunt Charlotte hustled as fast as her orthopedic shoes could carry her to a lecture by Professor Burton Malkiel, to get his autograph on her well-thumbed copy of his investment guide, A Random Walk Down Wall Street, a book that greatly influenced her market strategies.
In a letter on January 18, 1985, she wrote, “I did good things recently in the market. I first sold Diamond Shamrock on the afternoon the impending merger with Occidental was announced – I got 20 ¼ and made a bit of profit; on Monday when the merger fell through it went down to 3. Then this week I sold my Delta Air at 45 ¼, which as close to the high – now with all the fare price competition it is down to 41 today. I had bought Delta at 30 ½. I bought Pitney Bowes at 36 ½ and think it will go up some. I follow Ann Brown in Forbes and she hits a good many things right; on her comment I chose PB. It has been as low as 33 ½ in the past few weeks.”
My letters to Mom and Aunt Charlotte add up to a weekly diary of my life. I copied many of them, first by photocopy and then by printing out a second copy after I got a dot-matrix printer. I wrote about my work as a magazine reporter, my dating career and then my married life. On June 10, 1991, I wrote about seeing a suburban house, noting, “It has everything we want, in a town we like. We might bid on it . . . We might be kidding ourselves.”
My then-wife and I indeed bought that house, and my letters soon recounted the calamities of a first-time homeowner. On June 8, 1992, I wrote, “Just like last summer, we are dealing with another problem. The basement flooded in places with heavy rains we had last Thursday and Friday, and then more today. We have had a pump going since I discovered the situation last Saturday morning.”
The letters touched on our struggles to have a child, difficult family dynamics, job frustration. On September 17, 1993, I mused, “I never thought I would get in this jam, but here I am and on some level it’s hard to accept. I keep hoping things will stabilize but they never really have. Having a house, medical problems . . . Little did I know what life had in store for me. The important thing is to take a deep breath and do something about it rather than let things slide.”
I kept her informed of my own financial dealings. Never a stock picker, I instead eagerly tracked my retirement funds. On April 23, 1996, during a long stint of unemployment, I wrote, “I got the report on my 401-K yesterday. It is going up $1,000/month even without making any contributions. The value as of yesterday was $68,000. Combined with my IRAs, the value of my retirement funds alone must be close to $100,000 – not bad for somebody of my generation.”
On November 18, 1996, I giddily reported, “With the market run-up (my 401-K) has topped $77,000, up $20,000 in less than two years. I have the bulk of it in an index fund; I figure that lets me participate in everything going on, and the returns beat most other mutual funds.”
My enthusiasm shrank when the market went bearish. On April 9, 1997, I wrote, “I have not been checking my retirement funds while the market is down. I don’t need to get them for 30 years, so there is no need to get excited when I ‘lose’ money. I do check when the market is up. When it gets back to 7000 I’ll see where I am.”
From the perspective of a dozen years later, I have to laugh sickly when I consider the Dow went from 7000 to 14000 and then all the way back down to 6500 in March 2009. Thank goodness Aunt Charlotte was spared that aggravation.
I reported on the small pleasures of family life when I found them. On January 7, 1997, I wrote of our son, then 2 ½ years old, “Before he goes to bed at night he comes downstairs and asks me to give him some yogurt and I do, and that’s a sweet moment.” But a month later, discussing friends who adopted, I wrote, “Having a child, one way or another, only ends the infertility, it does not end the problems."
By 1997, Aunt Charlotte’s failing health became obvious in her shaky handwriting and uneven typing. On July 21 I wrote, “So, take care, and I hope the pills fix you up. It must be frustrating to be housebound – at least it’s a comfortable house, with Linda and Bill nearby.”
The last letter in the three-ring binder is dated August 4, 1997. I wrote at length about our son, just past his third birthday. “We took Sam to his first movie last weekend, to see Hercules at a multiplex. It went well and he enjoyed it, and even wants to go again . . . On Saturday I took him to the library, and we spent close to three hours in the children’s room. I kept getting magazines from downstairs to read. Sam found other children to play with and it went well. He fell asleep in the car while driving home and slept until 5:30. On Sunday we went to the aquarium and an arts festival, where I pushed him around in his stroller. The big attraction was getting a bag of M&Ms at the aquarium. Again, he fell asleep in the car and slept 2 ½ hours – S said he never falls asleep in the car. I said maybe I was the boring parent and he could not stay awake.”
The letter ended, naturally, with a financial update: “My 401-K went over $100,000 last week, although it might have gone down since then. Now that it has topped that mark, I am not so interested in checking how it is doing.”
The Charlotte Chronicles closed a few months later. The era of mailed letters ended with her death. Email’s arrival swiftly made letters antique and I’ve embraced the new technology. As an obsessive chronicler of life and love, in time-stamped order, I find email convenient, if lacking in the intimacy of the wobbly written word.
Some friends and I bat out four or five volleys of updates during a day, which I sort into personal folders holding hundreds of messages. In my rogue unattached days on JDate after divorce, I sent and received over 1,000 emails – 99 percent of them saved and a special few printed out. My Yahoo “sent” file holds another 5,000 messages. Hey, I type fast.
Yet, I miss the days of snail mail. Traditional fuddy-duddy daddy that I am, I still drill into my son the absolute social necessity of sending hand-written thank-you notes when he gets a gift. Not a phone call, not an email, but an old-fashioned letter. If I didn’t pass on the tradition, I’m sure Mom and Aunt Charlotte would haunt my dreams, chanting, “Vaaaa-yun, didn’t we teach you better manners than that?”
For me, handwritten communications express a personality. My mother and Aunt Charlotte had instantly recognizable scripts; how many of us today know and savor the handwriting of a relative or friend, or lover? Very few, I wager. Letters mark a moment of joint time, of just me sharing with just you. Stamped envelopes don't come with "bcc" or "reply to all" options.
I still send real letters, typically birthday cards and thank-you notes, or letters in “care packages” of photographs and magazine articles. And when a surprise letter brightens my mail box, the impact is electrifying. However well I know somebody, to hold that person’s handwritten thoughts touches me deeply – that person shared something special and secret. As the song goes, just you, just me.
For that moment, grace returns to the world.