THE BLOG

Lessons From Old Letters

03/23/2014 04:06 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2014

While doing research into my family's past for a series of memoirs I am writing -- Cousin Bella: The Whore of Minsk being the first to be published -- I recently found an old letter among my mother's papers from her older sister Rebecca who was confined to a TB sanitarium in Colorado, dated 1917. She would soon die there.

In it she spoke of her loneliness, her desire to connect with her family and friends again -- nothing like old letters to remind us that humanity didn't begin with our own birth -- that people looked for joy, love and friendship, suffered loss, and longed to connect with others from the beginning of humankind. Our 21st century technology hasn't changed that a bit -- in fact I half suspect that all this texting and telecommunicating may keep people further apart than they were in the past when a simple letter or postcard was treasured, and in this case kept for nearly a century -- not ever to be deleted. And what a beautiful handwriting my Aunt Rebecca had, not unique to her but common to all of my ancestors at that time -- alas, a style of penmanship that I have not inherited. I am looking through these old letters as I write about my own past, a child of the Depression years, looking backwards and finding a renewal and refreshment that is sometimes lacking in the present.

Strange, when I was writing Cousin Bella: The Whore of Minsk set in the distant past -- much of it prior to my own birth, I felt a closer connection to the world of my old, long gone relatives, than I do to some contemporaries. With only their fragile bodies and strong wills to face the world I found a new admiration for those who were looked down upon as "greenhorns" -- newcomers to America living in poverty and struggling to transcend it -- an admiration I do not always feel for those who were born into the privileges of our time. I know if my mother Lillian could return to life (she, who was the subject of A Christmas Lilly) Lilly would look amused and amazed by all the gadgets that people cherish so -- and ask, "So how's the baby?" And as she would look at all the people taking pictures everywhere -- all the time -- she would shake her head in dismay and whisper to me, "They record everything and experience nothing." No, come to think of it she would have been far more tolerant -- that last remark would have been my own.