The boxes of letters written to Mother over 55 years fill gaps in my life’s story. Things I didn’t remember came to life as I began to read them.
I hadn’t thought there was a record of some parts of my life. Now I see a lot was shared with her, more than expected.
The work of opening more than 200 letters is a big task. Reading and considering them will occupy time. Reflecting on what I said will be the crux of an autobiographical work, especially in the period from 1965 until 1974 when I began to keep a journal. When I was in Europe I wrote home a lot.
What about the period between my birth in 1951 and seventh grade when we started at the new school in our Catholic parish, after that first letter from camp?
I remember things from an early age, including visits to my maternal grandmother when she lived on Fillmore Street. Mother took enough photographs to provide a meaningful chapter or two of those early times.
Likewise, there are enough census records and genealogy snippets of public documents to piece together the earliest times. There are a few photographs from those early days, including one of Aunt Stella in her coffin and one of Granny Reed. I remember an explanation of those pictures, although I’m not sure who gave it. The photographic record of my maternal ancestors is equally thin. There is the photograph of Maciej Nadolski on a fishing trip to South Dakota, and that’s pretty much it. However, there is plenty between census records, public documents and snippets of memory to create a narrative of my forebears. There are also legions of shirt tail relatives living in both Minnesota and Virginia if I want to visit.
A question: To what extent do I write about a broader society and how it influenced me? I don’t have a good answer yet.
A case can be made for letting life’s artifacts tell the story. The census records show my grandfather worked as a coal miner, and there is oral narrative of how he started a retail business to compete with the company store. It didn’t work out, and eventually he was convicted as a draft dodger during World War II. He served prison time during which his children were split and went to live with relatives. My uncle explained the charges were a result of a “misunderstanding.” Do I need to broaden the story of mid-20th Century Appalachian economies, resistance to the draft during World War II, and dig deeper into the public record of those times? Do I just need to clarify and tell what I know? Telling what I know is straightforward. Awareness of what I do know and what I can yet learn is a separate issue.
People also have things that are personal and private. My default position is to let those lay. The end result of these efforts will be to create a narrative suitable for a broader audience, something interesting enough to read. Importantly, it will be something our daughter can read to know her own history without reviewing the thousands of documents and artifacts sitting in boxes and albums around our house.
That Mother kept my letters is remarkable. Reading and digesting them will be a welcome experience. I look forward to gaining insight into who I was then and how today’s version came to be. The number of gaps in the narrative has been significantly reduced by this find.