In the eighth paragraph of a letter neatly constructed in careful cursive, much like all the letters the generation before me in my mother’s family wrote to each other, chronicling their lives, my uncle wrote:
“I would appreciate it if you would destroy this letter. I have told you a few things that no one else knows, so just forget what you have read. However, I did want to put all the cards on the table so that when you hear some these horror stories about what a “bastard” I am, you would know the truth.”
Of the many gifts my mother gave me when she died, she left a large stash of letters written to her, most by family. And I, like a voyeur, peered into the minds of people without their permission by thirstily reading them. It took me three years after her death to even touch the cards and letters written to her. I couldn’t bear to throw them out. I couldn’t bear to read them. But once I did, I was grateful for the words.
Her family wrote to each other regularly, outlining their lives with careful detail, nuance of feeling, and a coherency that seems lost in current communication. Now one can instantly put words or photos out into the world without any forethought. Then photos had to be developed. Then, one had to sit and compose one’s thoughts before writing and because the words were written in one’s own handwriting and were committed to something tangible – paper - they seemed real. Now I think of some of the cringe worthy texts I have written, and wish I could send a blanket statement to the world: Destroy my texts. But I can’t. And even though my uncle asked my mom to destroy the letter, she didn’t. Things change, but they also stay the same. Our words outlive us.
I'm guessing Edith Wharton didn't expect this letter (excerpt) to be read by anyone but her lover.
I, unlike you, the reader of this post, read the whole letter my uncle wrote. I know that his “confessions” were incredibly innocent by any standard, yet he needed one person to know his truth and not think he was a bastard. Don’t we all wish for that? The simple act of “putting our cards on the table” for even just one other person to know our “truth”, and not be judged is a very powerful thing, no matter what that “truth” is. I long to write that kind of letter my uncle wrote too, though I don’t know to whom. My modern line would read: “I wanted to put all my cards on the table so in case anyone ever shows you my texts out of context or you hear stories of what a jerk I am, you would know the truth.”
One of the many gifts that “old things” give to us is the perspective to see how common our needs and wants are, generation to generation. In this case, words written long ago show how universal our human fallibility is, how deep and enduring our human longing to be understood is, and how connected we all are in this way. My deceased uncle’s words stand the test of time (like antiques) and they were, today, a gift to me, from him, something he could not have known fifteen years ago when he wrote them. Each step in my own journey (pilgrimage) seems to keep leading me back to where I came from (provenance) to help me find my way.