When I first thought of reading my mother’s old letters to my grandmother, it was because I had been listening to CBC radio talking about the polio scares of the 1950s. My husband Pat is five years older than I and can remember the public swimming pools in Windsor being closed because of fear of polio. Had my mother worried about her children being affected, I wondered? I should read her letters and find out. But of course, reading one meant reading them all, for who knew where such information might be buried?
I knew I had letters from my past in boxes somewhere and that some of the boxes from my mother had letters that my grandmother had preserved from their past. I must have considered these of some value, since I had lugged them through our many moves (an average of every three-and-a-half years all our married life). We have made our second-last move (back to our house in Haida Gwaii- the last one will be the one forced on us by old age and infirmities); have as much space as we’ll ever have; Pat and I are retired and thus I had lots of time to consider A Project. So I dug out the boxes, sorted the letters and other documents into binders, and then left them alone for ten years.
My Family Letters Project involves 80 years of letters saved by and written by the women in my nuclear family to their mothers.
The youngest child of twelve, Carol Enid Hazell, was born in St.Vincent, West Indies into the British colonial empire of Queen Victoria. She went to school in England, returned and married Dr. J.M.G. Ewing (Gordon) in St. Vincent, and after World War 1, went to live in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with her husband and daughter. It is hard to imagine how many letters they all wrote over the years: she kept in touch with her mother, brothers, and sisters in the West Indies, Britain, Canada, and the USA; but the only letters she saved were those from her daughter, Cynthia Ewing, written to her mother in Newcastle from boarding school in York, then as an adult, from Cambridge, Toledo, Ann Arbor, and Ottawa. When, in old age, she joined her daughter in Ottawa, she brought those letters with her. Between us, Cyn and I kept my memorabilia and those letters that friends wrote to me, although the letters I wrote home to Ottawa from England and Nigeria sadly seem to have disappeared.
This chain of personal letters to our mothers, of course, involves all our friends and the extended families, personal comments that I hope those living will excuse me publishing, and a lot of little details of life gone by, such as the information that my mother at boarding school as a teenager would have her hair washed every three weeks. [Letter dated May 8th, 1929] To the 21st century reader, this results in several thoughts, including ‘ick’, but also: at 14, someone else washes her hair? also, what did they all look like? and, oh that explains a few puzzling incidents in that Chalet School series (written in the 30s).
Adding to the vicarious enjoyment of these letters is the fact that nothing very distressing ever happens because no one wants to upset her mother: so agonizing experiences (if any) are kept private and don’t enter into the flow of weekly letters; and major events happen off stage since the family tends to get together in a crisis and so no letters are written, and the accident or crisis is only referred to afterwards.
As well, it should be admitted, I come from a very fortunate family: on both sides generally, there was health and enough wealth, in spite of the Depression and World War Two, no great tragedies happened, and if all marriages were not successful, most were, families were loving, and children were treasured. For me, reading these was like enjoying a familiar novel, or maybe a prequel: you know the main characters and the ending, but you are getting all sorts of new and entertaining information. As the boxes reached my memorabilia, 40 years ago rather than 80, there were notes and cards from my past, and that walk down memory lane was fun too. Those notes and artifacts add variety, since they are from friends to me- the odd letter in the collection from someone else added interest to my mother’s letters, but in 1951 she tells her mother how much she and my father enjoy the letters they get, but also says she is going to burn them since the collection was getting so bulky. How glad I am that my grandmother kept Cyn’s letters, one-sided though the conversation is.
So I read the letters, put them in chronological order in plastic sleeves and binders, annotated them with stickies when I recognized the names, and supplemented the narrative with the oral stories I’d heard all my life. My grandmother had a box of loose photos too, so I have slipped them in the sleeve too if relevant. My mother took a writing class in her 70s, and wrote short stories about her mother’s life: the eruption, the earthquake, fictionalized versions of family sagas. I include similar tales we loved as kids: our mother being naughty with a midnight feast at boarding school. And long term? As I wrote to my 97-year-old godmother in England, I can’t help thinking there is a thesis in here somewhere. Now we have the Internet, I think publishing these may be a contribution to the domestic history of the 20th century. My grandmother kept the letters from her daughter, and enjoyed reading them and putting them in order in her old age, and there are indications that my mother looked them over as well before her sight went. Now we have the technology I feel they should serve a wider purpose than bringing a smile to my face as I enter old age. The collection may lack drama for an outside reader, but the small details of life in the last century are strangely compelling. So I am posting these online and sharing the love with the world- because what these years of letters do show is a century of caring and long families and teasing, friends and connections and love.