Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Nine

I’ve not spent much time at the dig lately, busying myself with book publication stuff. (Big happening coming soon!) My pub date was moved up a month, at my request, so now it’s the middle of October! We’re working on covers at the moment. I pretty much rejected the ten the design team sent me, but they are working with one of them. So that’s the news on the memoir front.

While I’ve been on hiatus, I’ve been reading the letters I wrote to my parents five decades ago. They begin with a few from the University of Washington, which are so whiney I’m not even going to excerpt them here. I can imagine my parents rolling their eyes at my ongoing complaints about boring classes, stupid professors, too much work, bad dorm food, rain. I went on and on with so much minutiae about my activities, both classes and extra-curriculars!

At the end of one six pager, I asked them to send the missive on to my sister who was in graduate school in Michigan, because, “this stuff is so boring to write over and over.” My mother wrote a note in the corner before she sent it on, “Jo—please return this to me. SJS” She wasn’t just saving letters out of habit, she was determined that they be available to me in my far distant future, certain perhaps they would be of value to me. And maybe they are, in spite of my current embarrassment re-reading them. They have taken me back. Though I don’t remember my ongoing misery, I am amazed I wrote so often.

I was also not happy with the lack of mail I got in return. Hence, this brief postcard:

After a year living and working back in Centralia post-graduation, the letters continue with my first months resettling in Blacksburg, Virginia to begin my then-husband Ed’s graduate school career. 

The first one is from the end of the summer of America’s bicentennial that we spent touring the country in our home-converted orange VW van. We spent a week at the family farm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

2 August 1976
Ann Arbor

“Grandma got out all the letters her children wrote home during the service. I spent hours over yours, Daddy, and still didn’t finish. They were fascinating! I learned so much and really think I got a feeling at least for what it was like for those at home and maybe just a little for you, too. What do you mean — you couldn’t think of anything interesting to write? 

“I would love to read yours, Mother. Daddy, you also said since you couldn’t save all the letters you got, you were writing down the highlights in a book. Do you still have it? How come you never told us what it was like?” 

I knew I had seen these boxes of letters, but didn’t remember when, and certainly don’t remember reading them. When I created my Letters Home: An American Farm Family in WWII book, I did find—in an earlier Big Dig into the box labeled “WWII Memorabilia”—a tiny notebook of highlights from letters my father received before he embarked from New York and recopied, but nothing since then. Now I know the circumstances of recording them. 

And then we were in Blacksburg and our duplex upstairs apartment, where we would live for seven and a half years at poverty level income. It tells a story not only of money woes, but of the economy of the era.

22 September 1976
Blacksburg

“. . . We only have eight dollars in our checking account (and no cash). Ed doesn’t get paid til the first of the month. I’m going to get unemployment but it may be a month before I see any of it. Sigh. I’ve written letters and sent resumes, but I haven’t heard yet. I looked at the microfilm at the employment office—there wasn’t anything in this area but I’m encouraged that the kind of job I want does exits. 

“I bought sirloin steak for $1.59/lb the other day. Like a dummy it didn’t occur to me that it was a special. I went back the next day for more and it was back to $2.19. But pork chops were down from $1.89 to $1.39. Someday I’ll figure out what normal prices are so I’ll recognize good ones when I see them.”

And then came the really bad news: a second wisdom tooth in a month had gone rogue. The first one days before we returned home from our cross-country trip and I had to consume “meals” through a straw until we arrived in Washington. A week later, we’d driven back to Virginia with a U-Haul. And now, a month later, we had eight dollars—and a crisis.

October 29, 1976

Dear Mother and Daddy,

“I don’t know why I’m writing this…we don’t have any stamps. Talk about penniless. . . . I hope you won’t mind not getting your car payment this month — tuition is due. This is depressing me — I won’t tell you the rest. 

“P.S. The [top of the] wedding cake came. It was fun to have but we just ate one piece — it was pretty stale. 

“P.P.S I broke the bow off my glasses yesterday. $$$”

I got a job as a field researcher for the National HeadStart Transition Study. I spent an “exhausting” week in Boston training, then was assigned a study area in rural towns near Blacksburg. My task was to test kindergartners who had been in a HeadStart program and a group who had not, and interview their parent in their home. It was an eye-opener.

December 21, 1976

“Another thing I’ve discovered, poverty isn’t being without money, it’s a state of mind. One family who made less last year than many of the others, doesn’t consider themselves poor. They love their [three] kids, have a strong family life and a clean house and are very happy. Another makes considerably more money, has only one child — downtrodden, quiet, “dull” child — no children’s books, have never read to their son, no crayons, paper, paint, scissors, etc. (color TV though). Dark, dinghy house. It’s really incredible. I think all the families have a larger income than Ed and I do, though I’m sure I’ll never consider us poverty level. It’s where we come from I suppose.”

I’ve wondered if I should I burn the journals I’ve kept sporadically over the years. Do I want my children to know my inner self — even that of which I am not proud, or that which implicates others they love? Would they even read the scribblings or would the box just get shuffled from place to place, imposing guilt at not having time to read them. I think of my parents’ letters: what if they hadn’t kept them, shuffling them across the country and through five homes? What a loss. And it’s probably a good think I was in my sixties before I discovered them. My journals don’t feel the same; but now, reading the letters I wrote home, I realize my children will have nothing of me if I destroy my journals. Nor will they have anything of themselves: emails and texts are not saved. I do have years worth of blog posts, if the Cloud survives.

I’m glad, now, to have these letters. I don’t think I kept a journal during those years, and while I haven’t forgotten how challenging it was having to choose between bread and milk at the grocery store, and feeling like I had won the Readers’ Digest Sweepstakes when I found a twenty dollar bill in a parking lot, it’s different to read words written in the midst of it. My parents never talked about the war years, but somehow I think reading their letters was more immersive than their storytelling could ever have been.

A reader of this blog wrote that she has nothing at all of her parents. I guess given the choice of nothing or everything, I choose everything. I’m leaving words for my children and grandchildren, if they choose to read them.

But do I continue to save these letters from college? They bore even me.

15 thoughts on “Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Nine

  1. my mother started journals and notes over and over… dozens of notebooks with a few pages in her spidery hand-writing and then when my sister and I put her into care there were hundreds of tiny post-it notes stuck everywhere. “Get eggs. Will the children still love me?” on little scraps of glued paper. Heartbreaking… we read all of them as we collected them into a basket on her apartment table.

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    1. That is heartbreaking. “Will the children still love me?” Oof. Fearing being a burden is universal; but fearing I will forget I love my children may be more terrifying to me. Forgetting to say, “I know you. I love you. I appreciate you. Thank you.” While I’m being a burden.

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  2. I don’t have written letters or memorabilia, even though Mama faithfully wrote to me every week, through college and times I was living other places as my family and I moved around the world. She didn’t keep any of my letters, either, BUT I have boxes of photos, and, thankfully, my memory is still in tact, to be able to remember THAT house, or THAT yard, or THAT dress. I’m afraid all my kids will have left of me is photos that I’ve faithfully scanned onto discs and thumb drives. Hopefully, later, they will have a piece of technology that they can access all those photos on.

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    1. My parent’s called me faithfully on Sundays, perhaps even in college, perhaps they thought that left them off the writing hook. I can attest they didn’t write to me in college, from the number of times I begged them to write. I don’t know how they could bear my boring letters; but at least later when they got personal mail in the box, my dad called for a celebration. It’s strange how we remember clothes, isn’t it?

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  3. I wish I had your organizational skills to go with my prolific writing. My “journalling” is everywhere. On scraps, in notebooks, tucked in books. I wonder what pieces will come as a surprise once I’m gone? 

    Just so you know, my Dad read your post first thing this morning and it prompted a breakfast full of stories. A benefit of staying here for a few days. Thank you. 

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    1. Actually, I think our mother’s “journaling” was a lot like yours–scraps of ideas, thoughts, quotations in all kinds of random places. If I hadn’t read this particular post of Gretchen’s, the time might have come in the near future when I would throw out all Mother wrote to me. Maybe I should rethink.

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      1. As Jo Ann writes, our mother’s are everywhere. We, or at least I, gave her journals and she never wrote in them. She said they were too pretty to write sad stuff in. Seriously, she said that. I have a bin full of blank journals she was given over the years. Maybe I should have given her ugly ones.

        I’m so glad the post prompted story-telling! That’s awesome.

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    2. I don’t know if I have any of hers in my box of saved letters. And maybe I shouldn’t have discarded the unsent ones. On the other hand, I think they are more interesting to me than they will be to future generations. Perhaps they served their purpose.

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  4. What an incredibly rich history you have and continue to excavate! I too wonder about destroying my old journals, and go between worrying about embarrassing myself, hurting others, or boring them to death. I can’t even read them myself. But the fact is, I haven’t destroyed them, and I could die tomorrow. So that tells me something. My parents kept nothing, and my past is a long dark history. Am I better off? I have no idea, but I have often longed for more.

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    1. I’m not sure where mine are. Not here I thought they were. I wonder if I already ditched them. ?? It’s possible they will be less embarrassing and hurtful when we are gone. And lean more toward being more deeply known. That’s what I/ve found in reading my parents’ letters anyway.

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