I’ve sat on many panels at book festivals and conferences discusing the role of research in my writing. Enough to know that I appear to know something about the topic. I write picture book biographies and historical fiction primarily, yet research is a topic that presents infinite challenges for writers,
teachers and students. Locating needed materials, reconciling conflicting accounts, grasping for the details needed to flesh out a story, navigating the murky waters of child appropriate material. Letters and diaries, or primary sources, are a window into a subject’s innermost thoughts and heartfelt sentiments and they are the type of research I find most intriguing. It feeds my inner voyeur. But, for many decades now, letter writing has become history, an ancient artifact.
In college, my mother sent me weekly letters from home. I waited on them eagerly, as much for the crisp bill folded inside as for the sight of my mother’s slanted handwriting. I did wonder why she wasted her time providing me with minutiae from the town I’d fled in my desperate need for a life far from the Boston suburbs. By nature a quiet woman, on paper, her words exploded. My mother’s chatty prose included details of last night’s supper, the health news of neighbors, her nutty patients from Boston City Hospital and the petty annoyances of my father. They somehow made me feel as if I were sitting at our kitchen table after school. My eccentric mother often signed her name with various aliases. Her favorite was Ernestine Clineski, with the postscript, I’m feeling Russian today. Those letters bridged the distance between Malden, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York. They are tucked away now, hidden in an attic to be rediscovered sometime in the distant future.
My own correspondence with my children began similarly. Each of my four children has a memory box in their closets, packed with the momentous events in their lives. The preschool graduation diplomas, tickets stubs, favorite drawings, newspaper clippings, journals, certificates, Christmas lists, birthday cards from grandparents, postcards from every city I visited (We rode bikes yesterday at Versailles and had un boule du chocolat glace…)and letters to lonely campers (don’t forget your deodorant—your cabinmates will thank you.) In one box I found three pages listing the times of my contractions the night I went into labor. These are the tokens of their lives I hope they will one day cherish. I am a sentimental soul, but I do hope these articles also serve as a reminder of who they once were, how they existed within their family, their school and the world beyond. In these boxes I hope they rediscover a history of their early dreams and successes.
But, over the past several years, the items added to their boxes have tapered to a trickle and our correspondence consists of text messages and emails. Still in letterwriting mode, my texts are long and preachy. More daily reminders and reprimands ( I hope u remember to…) than idle ramblings. Their one word responses (K…Got it…Yup…) offer no hint at any familial connection. What will these ephemeral exchanges mean to future generations? How will they impact research and history? What will they reveal about the nature of our relationships?
Years from now, I often wonder what documents will be left for writers to use in tracing the lives of those they research if all meaningful exchanges transpired on snapchat and Instagram. And all of our snapshots from family vacations, graduations and sacred moments existed on our phones.
For now, I am grateful for the letters from my past, from a wildly eccentric mother and a taste of humdrum life that hold within them a unique history and the keys to a life lived and loved.