Updated: May 29, 2019
Things often don't go the way we plan. This week, I had written what I consider to be one of my best stories yet and had to set it aside. The subject of my article is a dear friend, age 91, who is quite a jewel. I allowed her to review my finished piece for accuracy. She had very kind things to say about my writing.
This was a high compliment as she was my 9th grade English teacher, a true grammarian. But, for very personal reasons, she asked me to wait to publish it...until after she passes. I had to hold back tears. I so wanted to share her with you, but have to honor her wishes. Lord willing, one day, you will meet her.
Not publishing the story that I had planned to is a small hope for me that has been deferred. Many of us live with much bigger hopes that have been delayed or, in the case of my guest writer this week, altogether disappeared.
She, too, is an English teacher. She was my 11th and 12th grade English teacher. But her enduring role in my life is mother. In loving motherly fashion, she has come alongside me to help meet a need: a good story for this week.
As you hear her amazing story, of a missing mother and how her voice appeared more than six decades later, I think you'll agree, a longing fulfilled is healing and instructive.
Does anyone write personal letters anymore?
It does not seem so. While many still write Christmas letters and thank you notes, most of us in 2019 communicate with texts, tweets, Instagram, and Facebook. Letters take time, require stationery, pens, envelopes and stamps, and must be put in a mailbox. We just don’t connect with letters anymore. Once a year, I write a Christmas letter summarizing my year for family and friends. However, I send out and receive fewer each year.
Letter-writing has become a lost method of communication. However, before modern Internet capabilities in the 1960s, I wrote and received many letters from my fiancé who worked in Arkansas while I lived in Michigan. I have them wrapped in ribbon in a memento box. They are special because my husband passed on eight years ago and these letters connect him to me. That’s why personal letters are such a treasure—they provide a connection to people who are important in our lives.
When my husband and I had our three children, I wrote letters to each of them from infancy to their early adulthood. I would write about their impact on my life, their words and actions, how cute they were, my advice to each one, as well as highlights of news events of the 1970s -1990s. I also shared my faith in God and the belief that He had blessed my husband and me with each child for a reason. I gave them their box of letters when they became adults.
The primary reason I wrote letters to them was because my mother, Joyce, died two months before my eighth birthday and I had no memory of her. I didn’t know what she thought of me, her life as a coal-miner’s wife and mother of eight children by the time she was 33, or her important life lessons. Did she like to dance, cook, read, pray, garden, go to church, discuss politics, or play with her children?
This lack of memory and connection to my mother left a hole in my life. Since a person’s life can be snuffed out in an instant, as was my mother’s by suicide, I wanted to leave each of my children a connection to me. I never knew if I, too, might succumb to the same type of depression that overtook her at age 41.
My mother’s youngest sister Clara died at 103 in October 2018. As her daughter--my first cousin Janice-- went through her mother’s photographs, cards, and documents trying to determine what should be discarded and what should be saved, she found a box of letters. When I saw my cousin in Florida in April 2019, she gave me and my two sisters a package of 15 letters, browned and tattered with age, written by our mother in pencil, now fading and smudged, to her youngest sister Clara.
I can’t fully express the mixture of emotions I had when I read my mother’s letters. I felt joy, sadness, pain, and a deep love and respect for her, which I had not felt before. Her letters were dated from 1933 when she was 21, married, and the mother of her first child and living in a West Virginia coal mining town through 1951, when she was 39 and the mother of eight children living in the hills of eastern Kentucky.
I was six at the time of her last letter in 1951. Although she did not mention me in them, her comments to her sister gave me an insight into her everyday life and feelings of joy, love, and heartbreak.
I discovered from her letters that my mother loved to garden and she canned vegetables and fruit. She longed to have her sisters visit, gave them advice, loved her children, sewed clothes for them, looked for bargains, used words like “gee” and “contrary”, and missed her husband who was often away working in another state.
She believed in God, read her Bible, was baptized by a Free Will Baptist preacher, and prayed for her sisters and others. The saddest, most heart-wrenching letters were written in 1942 when she asked Clara about their middle sister Mary being put in a mental hospital suffering from manic depression two months after her only child’s birth.
In her second letter about Mary’s hospitalization and sickness, my mother expressed extreme distress when she learned that Mary, who they thought was getting better and would be released soon, had died suddenly, reportedly from ingesting poison.
In fact, my mother was so upset she wrote that two hours after learning of Mary’s death, she went into labor and bore her seventh child, a boy, John Douglas. Even though the letters were not written to me, reading them helped me to connect to my mother for what seemed to be the first time and fill the empty hole I had in my life.
To share this precious treasure of our mother’s letters, I made electronic copies of them and plan to put them into an electronic album with photographs of her with her sisters to give printed copies to my five siblings so they can share them with their children. By doing so, we will continue a wonderful connection with our mother and their grandmother.
~ Bonnie June Shellnut
She is like a tree planted by streams of water,
yielding its fruit in season,
whose leaf does not wither,
and who prospers in all she does.