I moved into the home of two great aunts over twelve years ago. While combing through the remnants of furniture that were left, I stumbled onto a trunk filled with pictures and letters they had saved. This little adventure began my research into my family history.
The house next door was built by my great-grandfather. My cousin invited me into her attic one day and together we opened a sealed barrel. This barrel contained dozens of letters wrapped in bundles and tied together with ribbons. We had hit the mother lode, letters dating back to 1827. For weeks I sat and organized the thin parchment papers by author. Each letter remained in its envelope, so that I could identify dates and the location from which it had been mailed. I read for weeks, connecting the names within the family. There were business letters, land agreements, letters of love and letters of disagreement throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. The one letter that sticks with me, however, was written by my great-great-great grandmother to her granddaughter in 1879. It begins, “My dear Maude, I am now 74 and will not be able to give dates. I forget so much now,” and then proceeds to give an eight page account of her life.
Until that moment, the only thing that any of the family members knew about this particular woman, Martha Ruberry McBride, was her name and the dates of birth and death as recorded on her stone in the church graveyard. Suddenly she became alive with a story to tell. She walked us through her life before and after the civil war, the deaths of her husband and only son, her love for her grandchildren, and her remarriage.
What fascinated me the most, however, was this record of a life for others to read. That letter sat in a barrel for 130 years. Someone had the good sense to save it and store it properly. What may have seemed like an effort to provide remembrances to a granddaughter blossomed into a treasure of history for my generation. I have since donated it to the archives of the Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.
Everywhere I speak, I encourage people to write at least one personal letter to someone they care about describing their life. E-mail will not suffice. Write your personal history down on paper and either mail the letter to someone you love or place it in a safety deposit box with your will. As Roger Angell writes in The New Yorker, “If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare to venture upon a biography?” You never know what great-great-great granddaughter, nephew or niece, might discover the letter 130 years from now that inspires the great American novel, or at the very least shows your family that you were a living, breathing person with a story to tell.