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.”