Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Family Writing

My mother recently sent me a box of old family letters, documents, and photos. And I mean old old. Some of them date back to the mid 1800s. I've been going through the box slowly, because that's what old handwriting requires: patience. And the authors more often than not wrote in pencil. Not sure why. Cheaper, perhaps? Easier, as now, to correct mistakes? But the result is faded messages that often involve a lot of guess work and reliance on context.

Here's one of my favorites:

February 18, 1898
Mr. Givens,
Dear Sir,
Could you inform me if any of the friends of John Givens want the clothing he left here? There is not very much of value, but I think it would be well to have some disposition made of them, as the last time I looked to them the moths were at work in them. Has anything been done about removing his body? May I hope to hear from you soon?
Very kindly yours,
Mary E. Persons

My cousin, who knows much more of our family history than I do, said John had died young--in his 20s--and had been staying at Mary's boarding house not too far from his family's farm. I don't know how he died. I don't know what ever became of the body. I don't know what poor Mary was doing with it in the meantime. At least it was cold that time of year in upstate New York. Perhaps John had a spot on the back porch while waiting for someone to come get him.

I found an old dance card from 1886--no names filled out on it. Makes me wonder why not.

There's a letter my grandmother wrote to her mother:

Nov 8 1907

Dear mamma.--

I though I would write to you to let you know that I am well and hope you are the same. we are going to bucher the 20. and I wish you could be hear to eat sausage and buckweatcakes. we would have a good time. grandpapa bought me a winter cap though I tell you it is a good one I can pull it way down over my ears in winter I can wear it. grandpapa is going to get me a pair of rubbers for my felts. I have a good pair of felts. all that I need is a pair of rubbers. Our well has lots of waters in we don't have to go up to sams any more. am I glad of that. grandma did not help me write my letter. I can write my letters alone now I go to school every day. I like my teacher. I will soon be in my fifth reader. I am in language the teacher said If I would she would put me in the a grammar to.

There was no envelope for this one, so I only know my grandmother was in Locust Ridge PA--no clue at all where her mother was. And I wonder why they weren't together. I'm sure my grandmother missed her, so I'd like to know the story.

I'm glad to have the bits and pieces now at least. It's wonderful to touch the fragile paper, look at the pictures of people I don't recognize, and to know we're all connected.

I was going through some of my own old papers yesterday and came across a notebook from third grade. It was a science glossary I'd had to keep and then a bird journal. All of it was in cursive--same as the letters my ancestors wrote. I showed my daughter the notebook when she got home. She's in third grade now . . . and she couldn't read it because she hasn't learned cursive. And chances are she won't--at least not much.

One of my kids' teachers this year said that this year's freshman college students are the first class that will not have been required to learn cursive in school. It's a lost "art" now, no longer necessary in the age of emails.

Knowing that and then going through these old family records and even my own homework from grade school has made me realize that not only are we losing touch with each other in this era of technology--an era that's here to stay--but we're losing touch with our past. If my daughter can't read my handwriting, how would she ever manage that of her great-great grandparents, aunts, and uncles? And what will she be leaving behind for her own great-great grandchildren, nieces, and nephews? A hard drive?

I read an article this morning that asserted that children who do practice their handwriting even for ten minutes every day before they begin work at school are calmer, more focused, more ready and able to learn. Maybe it's a limited pool the study draws from. Maybe it's not a large enough study to warrant the attention of public elementary schools. But what can it hurt, those ten minutes of writing?

My daughter has been wanting to "do" something besides soccer and Brownies and piano this fall. So now I know what that something will be. I'm going to teach her cursive, because I refuse to be the last generation of my family that knows the previous generations.

Back to my dusty old box.

What lost arts do you miss or that you have made an effort to not lose in the first place? And why?


AIldefonso said...

I know what you mean. When I was around Emma's age (maybe even younger), my grandma would sit me down at the table and practice my cursive. I personally love pretty handwriting, whether it be cursive or calligraphy, and I'm upset that they aren't teaching it anymore! Isn't it nice getting cards or notes with pretty loops and fancy letters rather than text messages and emails? It's such a shame :[

Bobbie said...

I agree, Abby. I like sending out thank you notes (handwritten!) and I still send actual letters to an old landlady Ron and I used to rent from when we were first married. It's so much more personal.