Thursday, May 3, 2012

Voices from the Past

For years, my mom has saved a suitcase full of letters from her parents and grandmother, mailed in the late 1950s, the '60s and the early '70s. She keeps threatening to throw them all away, but I've discouraged it. I get a kick out of reading them -- aside from all the news about family and neighborhood, they contain fascinating snippets about the news stories of the day. After all, these letters were written in one of the most tumultuous eras in American history.

For most of these years, my mom lived in Florida. My grandparents lived in Washington, D.C., where Mom grew up. My great-grandmother lived in a small town in Central Florida, my grandmother's childhood home.

“I am shocked and grieved over our president. Would hate for such a disaster to happen to anyone. I watched TV until midnight Friday and most of yesterday. Watched his program in Tampa Monday. It was so good. So happy it didn’t happen there.” -- Great-grandmother, postcard of Nov. 24, 1963
“Last weekend was a nightmare to us all. I shall never look at so much television again. I actually got a stiff neck from it. The murder of the alleged assassin was indeed right out of the paper-covered writings. One got to expecting -- what next?” -- Grandfather, letter of Nov. 27, 1963

When I was home in February, I combed through the letters and transcribed the brief passages that had to do with news. I had it in my head that they might be fodder for some kind of writing project. Unfortunately, although my grandparents always watched the news, they didn't write about it extensively -- usually it was just a sentence here or there.

“I have been listening to the news of King. He should not have pushed that Memphis march until people cooled off. I think all the news gets emotions aroused. If it isn’t stopped I don’t know what will happen.” -- Grandmother, letter of April 5, 1968

My grandparents were pretty conservative -- he more so than she -- and they occasionally voiced disapproval about the demonstrations and political leaders of the day. They did not admire Martin Luther King Jr., for example, and they liked Richard Nixon.

“I believe Mr. Nixon lost touch with reality a few years ago. He must have, to record all that junk for the world to read, and he and his pals all lawyers. Caesar said, 'The evils of men live after them, the good is often interred with their bones,' or something like that.” -- Grandfather, letter of Aug. 14, 1974

Mostly, though, they avoided ideology and discussed the news only as it immediately affected their lives. My grandmother, for example, was prevented from going to work in the late 1960s by race riots in Washington, D.C. My grandfather wrote about a man he knew at work who was killed in those riots, and later, about the difficulties of buying gasoline during the gas crisis of the early 1970s.

“Gas is short up here. We have long lines at the stations. The limit is about $3 and people join the lines to get it. There isn’t as much shortage as there appears. People are afraid to let their tank get down to 1/4 full so they drive on the upper half of the tank for fear that between 1/4 and half full will not get them through. Have to buy gas in the morning, but not too early. I had a choice of six stations on my way to work at one time. This morning I counted those not open or closed. It turned out I couldn’t buy gas this morning -- none were open at 7 a.m. or earlier. Had gas anyway so I was not in trouble.” -- Grandfather, letter of Jan. 30, 1974

My mom has often said she worries about how some of these letters would be read today. Her parents' criticism of King, for example, or their unsympathetic view toward the violence that followed his assassination. But I don't think their views were uncommon among middle-class white Americans in the 1960s. That's why the letters are so valuable -- they're a time capsule of a sort.

They also help me hear, after so many years, the voices of my family. My grandfather died in 1977, my grandmother in 1989, and my great-grandmother in 1974. Great-grandmother's postcards are covered in tiny cursive scrawled so tightly by her octogenarian hand that it's nearly impossible to read, but her Southern speech patterns come through.

“News of terrible tragedy in California (indecipherable) me. I watched from time of victory speech made till end in Arlington Cemetery. Like killed me.” -- Great grandmother, postcard of June 11, 1968

Among the major events missing from these missives is the moon landing. My parents (and me, as a toddler) were living in Washington, D.C. at the time, while my father finished his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. So there was no need for letter-writing. My grandparents were practically right next door.

(Photo: Railroad lines in Shepherd's Bush, London, on Monday.)


Elizabeth said...

Oh, Steve, I just love these, and I didn't know any of them! It's interesting, but I just posted about a show that Cindy Sherman has in NYC right now and part of what's included is the trove of vintage notecards -- I think you should sit tight and let that stuff stew a bit -- then create something out of them --

Lorianne said...

I love these, too. They remind me a bit of Twitter, in terms of the brevity a postcard requires. When you eliminate all the flowers and flourish, all that's left are the core emotions. Great stuff!

Reya Mellicker said...

This is a great post! Not only are the quotes historical, they were written by people in your family. It brings their points of view alive, reading their words. Really cool!

Ms.M said...

I agree they are like Twitter. LOL Great sm glimpses into the past. Your right not to let your mother throw them out.

Thanks for sharing.