Last week, several kind souls helped me put all of my mother's saved letters (I've estimated about 8000 pages) into folders by year and also to make stacks of some personal keepsakes that I've salvaged from the piles and piles of papers I had to go through. The first folder starts at 1949 and the last one this year, 2010. Some are stuffed--and some years needed two folders. Others represent lean years--primarily the early and the later years. As I think about it, the folders arrange themselves quite well into the bell curve--the outer edges barely registering on the graph, but the middle years rising sharply and hitting their peak when all three of us children were in college and starting our careers and families.
Yesterday afternoon, with a cup of hot tea and plenty of tissues to keep me company with this nasty cold, I began to read in earnest, starting with the oldest items. As I read, I am putting aside the very best letters Mother herself wrote that she kept copies of (this practice was sporadic until about 1966, unfortunately)--the ones I think most expresses mother's uniqueness. But I'm also reading letters she decided to keep that were written to her.
We were a letter writing family. No question about it. Unfortunately, none of us had particularly legible handwriting. Apparently, my dad's mother, known to all of us as "Kokomo," wrote nearly every day for quite a while, although it looks like most of those letters no longer exist. Mostly just about routine stuff, daily happenings, family matters. She also wrote one special letter to each of her grandchildren on their birthdays each year. I have mine and I've seen the ones to my sister, but am not sure about the ones to my brother, but hope they are still here somewhere.
In the oldest folders, I found letters from my aunt who was working as a nurse in a mission stations, first in Africa and then in India, and some snippets of correspondence between my mother and Kokomo. Mother clearly did not find life easy when dealing with three small children (three of us in five years, a common pattern in our family and one that I also followed).
Personalities emerge in these letters. My brother and my dad wrote simple, factual letters, rarely expressing their emotional life and a bit shocking when they do (especially from my dad) Kokomo spoke for her husband ("Grandfather") and I don't think he ever wrote. So far, (I'm up to 1971), I've not seen a bundle of letters from my sister, but I can hear her good voice in the ones I've read, her ability to analyze things and describe so well what what happening around her.
What has become exceptionally clear is that my grandmother, my mother and I most definitely all wrote in order to deal with our demons. While we wrote about the everyday stuff, we wrote in order to make some sense of all that stuff and our lives in the midst of the daily challenges and chaos. We wrote about our wishes and dreams, our financial and personal struggles, and, what I find particularly fascinating, the constant struggle for all of us to maintain decent, affordable and workable wardrobes to go with the daily demands on the lives of three very busy women.
We wrote about needing to see psychiatrists, and wrote so we could figure out how to manage our lives without actually getting professional mental health therapy.
It looks like Mother kept most of the ones I wrote to her during my years at Rice University. I'm loving the time-spaced dialogue that would take place between the two of us. Questions asked in one letter found responses much later, and overlapped then with intervening questions and conversations.
I've also become aware that I was a real twit especially during my first year at Rice. Selfish, vain, and uncaring of others. My social life was most definitely my number one priority. While I managed not to flunk any of my courses my first semester there, it was a close call for me. I had intentionally left my spiritual development behind and had no plans to ever darken the door of a church or Bible study again. I starting thinking about the yearly birthday letters that Kokomo had written to me. She clearly became more and more concerned about me as I grew up. There was good reason for that concern. What a mess I was.
I trust that years, growing maturity, and a regaining of the willingness to be shaped by God has helped the situation. But the more I read, the more convinced I am that Mother really was something of a saint, just for hanging in with me. That is what mothers do, of course. So perhaps all of us mothers are all saints in a way.