Yom Kippur Yizkor 5779 – Letters and Legacies

I love receiving letters.  Not mail but an actual letter – hand written, hand addressed, with a real stamp in the upper right hand corner of the envelope. A metered postage mark does not count.  I envision the letter walked to the corner by the writer.  He or she stands at the deep blue postal box, a color the postal service has used since 1971[1], and is suddenly dumbfounded by the predicament they are in.

In my imagination, the letter is in one hand and in the other hand is a bag or cup of coffee or a book.  For a moment, the sender realizes the limitations of having only two arms for the third appendage would have pulled the lip of the mailbox open allowing the letter to formally begins its journey to the intended recipient.  Lacking the extra arm though, the book gets squeezed between their knees or the bag drops to the ground to free up their hand.

The letter slides easily into the innards of the postal box.  And hopefully your keys do not fall in as well.

Letters spark imagination, expression, and connection.  There is no mass sending of handwritten letters like is common with email today.  We cannot mail merge labels when penmanship adorns the front of an envelope.

After all, it is called junk mail, not junk letters.

Author Jon McGregor wrote in The Guardian about his passion for writing letters.  McGregor described how, as a boy, he would write two or three letters a day and receive the same number from people.  He writes:

I kept writing letters throughout my time at university. The first time someone gave me their email address, I looked at it as though it had no more relevance to my life than someone’s CB radio handle. But, of course, email crept gradually into my life, initially as a sort of proto-text-messaging, for occasions when quick and simple communication was required. And there was a long period of overlap where I would email someone to let them know I was writing a letter and would soon be posting it. But at some point the balance tilted, and letter-writing became something that happened by choice rather than by default; something a little self-conscious or mannered, something that started to feel like a duty or a task, and so was never quite done….[2]

Today, letter writing is considered an art but it was not always so.  The National Postal Museum is next to Union Station downtown. Their website has a wonderful article about letter writing.  It says:

There is… a trend among modern Americans to view letter writing as a kind of nostalgia, a vision of a way of life once beloved, now gone. Old letters are becoming objects of veneration, not only because they sometimes describe events of historic importance, but also because their physical appearance recalls people and places of long ago. On the website of Goucher College in Maryland viewers interested in the history of the school can find a link to a project known as the Round Robin. A number of women from the class of 1903 wanted to keep in touch with each other after they had graduated, married and moved, so they began by having one person write a letter to the whole group. That person then sent the letter to another person, who wrote a group letter, folded it up with the first one, and sent the letters to another member of the group. That member then wrote a letter, put it with the others, and sent the packet on. In this way each woman, when the packet reached her, would get to read all the news written by all the women who had come before her in the chain.

The Round Robin traveled between members of the class of 1903 for nearly 30 years. As time went by, the older letters were taken out and put into a scrapbook, but the newer letters kept circulating until the group could be sure that everyone had read them. It sometimes took as long as three years for the Round Robin to make it through all the group members and begin the cycle again, and often one woman or another would be forgotten or left out of a cycle by mistake. Despite never being able to predict when the Robin would arrive, members of the group wrote enthusiastically about their lives and their love for each other whenever the Robin came into their hands. Goucher College has collected the letters, and proudly displays transcripts of them on its website in testimony to the twentieth century alumni who valued letter writing not just for communicating news, but for sharing the joys and tribulations of their lives.[3]

Over the decades, the Round Robin became a mechanism for passing on experiences and camaraderie.

In one of the letters, Helen Hendrix Mohr wrote on January 8, 1930 from Kansas City:

Dear Classmates,

What could be more delightful than to be seated before a glorious log fire with a beautiful snow gently decorating all the landscape without and my forty six class mates gathered about the same fireside with me, informing me (of our) ‘great adventure’ since that eventful June (graduation) day in 1903! Such a great transformation has Round Robin brought me in this tiny book room. It certainly is wonderful how vividly letters can inform a person and I have keenly enjoyed all these visits, not only with all you girls, but your husbands and children and homes as well….[4]

The letter continues full of news and warmth about their collective bonds.  I imagine each alumna understood by possessing the Round Robin packet, they were holding onto these women’s legacy of experiences, values and friendships.  It was their responsibility to care for and add to this legacy.  So, they would write their letter and add it to the packet.

Reading their letters, you can feel their closeness, their connection and the blessing and comfort of lengthy friendships.

Goucher’s Round Robin is special because of the decades of interplay between these women.

There is another collection of letters far larger and diverse.

In the U.K. National Archives in London, there are 4,000 boxes containing more than 160,000 undelivered letters from ships captured by the British during the naval wars of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Now those letters — some of which are bundled in old mail bags and affixed with wax seals that have never been broken — are about to go online.

“You can imagine the excitement being confronted with such a treasure,” said historian Dagmar Freist, director of the Prized Papers project at Oldenburg University in Germany, which aims to digitize the entire collection.

“These letters have not been filtered, they have not been censored, nothing has been thrown away. Quite a few have not been opened.”

The mail, sent mostly between 1652 and 1815, is written in 19 different languages and contains songs, notebooks, packages and personal correspondence.

“Some of this mail is more than three centuries old, and it’s from all over the world,” said Freist.

But what fascinates Freist the most are the personal letters between ordinary folks — a part of history she says which is often overshadowed in favour of stories about powerful people….

Among the discoveries is a 1765 letter from a woman named Elizabeth Sprigs, an indentured servant in Maryland writing to her father at home in England.

“She is very, very poor. She doesn’t even have anything to wear,” Freist said.

“She apologizes to her father that she would approach him, apologizing for whatever she might have done wrong in the past, and she’s desperate and she asks him that he would send her some clothes because all she has is a blanket and the food she gets.”

But, of course, her father never got the letter and it’s not known what became of Sprigs.[5]

This is just one of the 160,000 letters.  I cannot even imagine the breadth of stories they contain.  These letters are material witnesses to history.  They communicate experiences and legacies.

Letters do not have to be archival documents though.  Just last month, a Beth El member who is a grandfather told me he has started the tradition of writing a letter to each grandchild as they depart for college.  He expresses what is special about that grandchild, his hopes for them and offers advice in navigating some of life’s challenges.

He shared the most recent letter with me and has said I could share an excerpt today. I changed the name though for their privacy.  It reads:

Dear Sarah,

I want to share with you my pride upon your being accepted by several prestigious universities….

I have recently celebrated my 84th birthday and as I look back on my life I would like to share with you, as I have with your sister and cousins, some of my life experiences and the philosophy that has helped me grow, mature, achieve a good life and experience a successful career.  I hope that as you progress through your life and career you will at times, when you question which road to take, stop and reread this letter.  I hope that at those times it will help you make the best decisions for you….

The letter continues for a few wonderful pages with headings like: Evaluating your Strengths and Weaknesses, Resetting your Long and Short Term Goals, Dealing with Success and Failure, Mental Health, Choosing a Partner and Dealing with Stress and Negative Energy.

The letter concludes,

…I have tried to share many of my life experiences with you in hopes that it will at times provide a road map for success in life.  It should not be taken as gospel for we each have unique personalities and unique experiences.  Its purpose is to supply guidelines when needed.  It is my fondest wish that you listen to advice and chose the pathway that fits your needs best, because what is good for you may not suit others.  I hope that you will file this letter away and when you have to make difficult choices reread this letter and I hope it will give you insight into possible solutions.

With all my love,

Grandpa

These letters are gifts to each person who received them.  The letter became the mechanism for informing, connecting and teaching.

Some of us have been as fortunate as Sarah and received a letter like she did from her grandfather.  A letter filled with love, advice and acceptance.  Others never received the physical envelope but understand its content from a lifetime of teaching and modeling for us from our parents or siblings, from our grandparents or spouse.

Yizkor is our way of honoring those letters, whether sent or implied.  Yizkor is our remembrance of those who authored important parts of our lives.

We are grateful… and we remember.

We remember the connections, the lessons and the legacy we inherited.

May these stories inspire us.  Maybe we will even decide to write our own letter to someone important just as Sarah’s grandfather did for her.

 

In a moment, we will turn to page 290 to begin the Yizkor service.

 


References

[1] https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/collection-box-colors.pdf

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/26/from-me-with-love-lost-art-letter-writing

[3] https://postalmuseum.si.edu/letterwriting/lw10.html

[4] http://meyerhoff.goucher.edu/library/robin/1930/1-8-HHM.htm

[5] https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/massive-trove-of-centuries-old-undelivered-mail-seized-by-british-warships-going-online-1.4818817