Life is change, and one thing that has radically changed in the last half century is the art of letter writing.
When my great-uncle traveled to Germany in 1897 to study, he wanted to let his family know of his adventures in the homeland of their father, but he had his parents, six brothers and two sisters to communicate to. So he wrote what was then called a “round robin letter.” Just one letter was sent to a sibling, and after it was read, they put their initials on it and the date that it had been received and then sent it on to the next sibling and so on. When Uncle Frank returned from Germany, he decided to continue the practice, calling it the “Rall Round Robin.” When the package of letters and photos had made its round and returned, you removed your old letter and put in a new one. This Rall Round Robin continued for more than 100 years. Maybe it is because my family is German, but they seemed to keep everything, so I still have most of those letters, including my grandfather’s and my father’s, whose first one, written at age 8, remains.
Several family members have given their collections to me (as the unofficial archivist) and together they constitute a unique glimpse of a century of a typical American family. They politely argue politics, celebrate births, mourn deaths and relate the small and large events that connected the Rall family for all of those years. It is my regret that the chain ended as the cousins grew apart and the family ties frayed.
The Ralls moved to many parts of the country, so their letters kept the family ties strong, but some families never moved very far from where they first put down roots. My husband’s family, the Stambaughs, moved within only a few miles of one another. Within a mile of the house where his father was born are the homes where his grandfather and great-grandfather were born. They were all farmers and worked together during the harvest, butchering and even barn building, so they had little need to write to one another. Hence, there are no letters from this close-knit family. But Americans are known for their wanderlust, so most are more like the Ralls than the Stambaughs. Their letters and postcards kept the post offices busy and the bonds of families strong. But that habit of letter writing is a thing of the past.
First phone calls supplanted letters, and then the internet opened up entire new ways to communicate. But, unlike letters, these new means of communication are ephemeral and lost when we hang up the phone or when we hit the delete key.
Without the letters of the past, we lose much of our history, not only that of our ancestors, but also of our country. Reading my family’s missives, I get a feeling of who they were. My grandfather died before I was born, but his love letters to my grandmother make me feel like I knew him, and illuminate how wonderful their marriage was.
Reading letters of people involved in important historical events makes those times come alive in a way that dry history books cannot. The late Donald Null served with the 115th Regiment in the 29th Division during WWII. He wrote a letter almost every week to his future wife, Lillian. They bring those momentous times alive, particularly the one written exactly one year after D-Day. Donald describes seeing the tremendous convoy of ships as far as the eye could see, wading in water up to his chest with his rifle over his head to get to Omaha Beach, and then facing the enemy bullets as he and his comrades fought to get off that killing field. No history book can match the emotions evoked in that letter. His daughters understand the value of these letters, and have generously donated them to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.
Will there be any voices describing our current times to pass on to future generations? My family’s century-old letters can still be read, but what about those old 5-inch floppy disks, or our Beta or VHS videotapes? Sadly, even professional archivists are unsure how long DVDs will last.
So, pick up that pen and paper, and write a letter to your distant relative or friend, and keep the ones they send you. It is the little things in our lives that convey the reality of what life is like at this moment. Preserve it for the future that will no doubt be far different than today, and bring back the art of letter writing.