Letters from the past

When I realized last Friday it was the 25th anniversary of the day the Challenger blew up, it made me think of a letter I once received.

Back when my husband Eric was in the U.S. Navy, he sent me plenty of letters. There was no e-mail or text messages back then, so we communicated by post often during his military service.

Up in the corner of one letter, right next to where he had written the date, it says in tiny writing “The space shuttle blew up today.” I remember well the day it happened, and know exactly what I was doing at the time. I was at home with our infant daughter, Maggie. I was feeding her a bottle and watching the launch.

Twenty-five years later, I have a little notation on the top of a letter.

I was talking to man, Bob, who retired from the Army National Guard a while back, and we were discussing how much easier the military of today has it when it comes to communicating with their families during a separation. E-mail, cell phones, Skype — what a change from waiting for weeks for a letter and then getting six at once. I’m not saying this to diminish what the service men and women do, by any means, just a commenting on the changing times.

Anyway, Bob and I talked about how so much history — military and other — comes from personal letters dating back hundreds of years. What better way to understand how a war changed lives than by reading the letters of those far away and those waiting at home. History is much more poignant when it comes in the form of a little girl writing a letter as she sways back and forth in a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail, rather than from a dry telling of how a group of people moved from one place to another.

I told Bob about two manila envelopes in my bottom dresser drawer. One contains the letters Eric sent me over his 10 years of service; the other contains letters I sent him. We both saved them. You could shuffle the two piles together and have complete conversations as we wrote back and forth.

I can’t speak for him about why he kept the letters he received from me, but I imagine it is for the same reason I saved each one I received from him, along with the letters he sent his little girl. When you are sad and lonely in the middle of the night, rereading a letter can be a great comfort. Seeing his thoughts, his telling of events of the day and even his handwriting could keep me plugging ahead into the next day.

My friend pointed out someday a great-grandchild of ours could learn a lot about us and our time by reading the letters.

That made me pause.

Many of the letters contain everyday stuff — I went to the grocery store, his ship pulled into Italy, Maggie did her first somersault. Not earth-shattering stuff, but the little things that kept us caught up with each other and filled up the pages. Filling up the pages is important, because “I love you” and “I miss you” only takes up so much space.

There are other letters, however, that are quite personal. Some are love letters. Some even contain little squabbles-by-mail. Do I want a great-grandchild or some unknown historian reading that stuff someday?

In the end, it doesn’t matter what I want, because I have no intention of destroying the letters. They are too precious to me. They contain so much — from discussion about our wedding plans to silly stories told to make the other one smile. Descriptions of the places he saw are just as fascinating as the crayon drawings made by a little girl who desperately wanted to be a mermaid, so she drew herself as one for Daddy to see. My descriptions of her face when she saw Ariel the mermaid on the big screen or of the funny noise the car was making are also important somehow in the telling of the story of us.

There are a lot of letters in that drawer. I haven’t read them in years, but I know they played a huge part in our lives. They may not be as immediately gratifying as communicating by Skype or cell phone while far apart, but I couldn’t keep Skype in an envelope to read years later.

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