Sunday, March 1, 2009

From Anna

The following is a letter that my great-grandmother Anna wrote to her sister. It is a favorite in my family, and has been read aloud on many an occasion. I stumbled across it tonight at my parents' house, and wanted to share it with you, whoever you are. It is a testament to the power of words, the art of letter-writing, and is reassuring to me, as I've been having similarly nostalgic musings as of late. I hope this stirs something in you, as it did in me.

Mrs. John B.
535 Jefferson Avenue
Elizabeth, New Jersey
April 9, 1942

Dearest dear Ellen,
Supposedly I am hard at work cleaning the attic but an overpowering nostalgia has seized upon me, and I just must write to you. I wish you were here with me -- surely somehow in spirit this afternoon you are here. It is a strangely beautiful day to begin with -- a perfect attic day -- even the light has the perfect attic-y quality. It had been warm enough for three days to bring out the leaves on the apple trees; forsythia is blooming but for hours now it has been snowing, a wet sticky snow that transforms the trees into something faerie -- looking like blossoms nestling in the new apple leaves. Robins and our redbirds are singing and here from the back attic window I look out over the yards into branches black and white against a white sky and the snow on roof and skylight make it white inside. This attic somehow casts a spell over me because it is what I always dreamed about being turned loose in as a child -- a historic attic filled with memories of a half-known, half guessed-at past. Life goes on in the rest of the house downstairs, but here I feel isolated from all of it, and a strange peace possesses me that i want to share with you. I can't begin to put it all in words, though. As I look down into the yard I see my own small self playing there and remember so vividly the Easter morning when I awoke to find Granny instead of Mother an Daddy in the bed beside my crib. (You were imminent). And I went into the yard feeling Mother -- lonesome -- and Mr. Patterson handed me a freshly laid egg from his hen coop -- my Easter egg that Granny cooked for me. But in reality, Cathie, my own flesh and blood little daughter is running there now, and David is sweeping the snow off the rhubarb plants. I wonder if that is the same pear tree where Granny used to help me put pulled-out basting threads for the birds to use in building their nests. And now it is nesting time again what ages afterward -- thirty four years! -- and it all seems like a moment that is gone. The trees are full of birds -- I hear a rooster crow, it always recalls sunny spring days when I was trudging home to Madison Avenue from school. Cars, cars -- their incessant whirr of their tires on the wet streets, life rushing by -- and yet this old house stands the same through spring rains and winter snows. I suppose Aunt Sadie used to see sleighs gliding by. Time is something beyond comprehension. There are chests and trunks filled with wonderful reminders of her time, her home, her clothes. Old letters -- bits of hair -- marriage records. Cousin May's childish sayings -- scraps of old dresses, old rugs, old upholstery -- pictures of the later 1800's with gas lamps and bric a brac that was shockingly dust-collecting -- a funny big old easel that probably held a picture, shawl-draped! What a place to let the imagination run riot. Old books -- ancient books -- old travel guides to St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey -- views of Switzerland, Montreaux (treasured memory) -- the Castle of Chillon, the Jungfrau! Here -- all of time -- all of space -- how intimate, how near.

Silly to try to put it in words - this mood of mine! How transitory things are -- and yet how permanent, compared with human life. You know Aline Kilmer's poem? I often think of it. What mementoes am I leaving for an attic to disgorge? Treasures that are treasures to me only, and yet I needs must keep them for moods such as this, for I like to conjure up with forgotten letters long forgotten moods. They seem to make the past more vivid. (But NEVER my love-letters -- I burned those long ago in panic lest anyone but John and I should ever chance upon what to any one else would not be sacred) -- just little things worthless to anyone by me -- college souvenirs, Mother-in-law's first dear letter of her unknown daughter-to-be -- two dresses I wore that summer when John and I were first in love -- the pocketbook I carried over Europe, poor battered thing, but somehow linking me tangibly and really to that almost faded, almost impossible dream -- drawings the boys have made --dirty old animals their baby arms have hugged (remember Nondy? Percy -- your Percy -- is Cathie's dearest love now).

Then there are other things that bear no meaning for me -- pictures of people I can't identify. Dear Uncle Archie seemed so close to me so much of the time last year when I was going over these things. His pictures I love, and try to reconstruct his life from his account books. I love to pore over them. He listed daily every single expenditure and I have these records going back to the time when he first left Ireland. Frequently mentioned were repayments of small loans to George Trull, our grandfather -- the high chair for May, Christmas gifts to the Trull children -- payments to George Brown for word done -- various repairs on the house -- all seem to make almost a diary.

The snowflakes whirl outside the window -- the steady drip drip of melting snow from the roof is the most insistent sound. The past, the present, the future too, life, death, reality, unreality, all seem inextricably mixed. Since we have lived in it for a year now the rest of the house seems quite definitely ours in the very real present -- John's and Johnny's and George's and David's and Cathie's and mine -- but somehow the attic is only mine with its memories that none of them can share. What happy times I have had in this house- the many Sunday dinners with Uncle Archie and Aunt Mabel and Scotty -- the Thanksgivings when Granny and Uncle Archie won "Going to Jerusalem" and played in potato races. The time I stayed here when Archie had the mumps -- and recently the quiet intimate times with Aunt Mabel when she was sick and told me more of herself in the times when I used to rub her back than she ever had been able to reveal before. Yes -- they are all happy memories with this house, and what blissfully happy history is being made here now. Past and present all mixed together now -- John's summer suits in a box at my elbow, Aunt Mabel's wedding veil in the chest in the corner, Aunt Sadie's embroidery in the sewing box under me, our summer camping equipment, Aunt Rose's little old trunks -- the size 14 shirts and underwear I have laid in a supply of for the boys next year's needs -- Uncle Archies's desk.

I know you'd love to go over these things too. I opened up the big American flag in the chest for the first time yesterday. It measures 6' 4" X 12'. The pole is here somewhere, and I'd like to rig it up. I guess it flew in World War I days as Granny's did daily from her attic window. This house has survived the Civil War, the Spanish War, the first World War, and now God grant that it may survive this one -- unbombed and unbereaved. Snow and spring --past and present, war and peace -- all here together today.

My nose and my toes have gotten cold with such long sitting. I must back to the exercise of sorting and straightening and sweeping.

My dearest love, sister mine


  1. am stirred. you don't want a trans-atlantic pen pal, do you?

  2. Oh, I would love to have some old letters like this! I want to see the real version someday :)