“Letters,” noted journalist Janet Malcolm, “are the great fixative of experience… They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so.”
Over the past months, off and on, I’ve been re-reading letters — letters from Helmut’s family in Paraguay, as well as our letters to his mother, who had carefully saved them so they could be returned to us later. In 2020, the year before Helmut died, he looked into that box of letters and read quite a number of them. Mainly, I think, he read the ones we had written, which he enjoyed because of the way they brought parts of our past back to him. He would stop sometimes and tell me bits that he discovered or delighted in.
I didn’t look at the letters then, but when I decided to go through them to organize and re-read and decide if any should be kept, I was astonished how many there were. Apparently we’d kept them all! I gave up counting, but it was hundreds. (Since many were written on thin airmail paper, they hadn’t taken up much space, even in a pile.)
Reading old letters can definitely be interesting. It can also be unsettling. As Janet Malcolm said, in reference to a biographer’s use of letters, “Only when he reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved.” So thoroughly can a letter provoke presence and a sense of “life retrieved” for me — especially from two of Helmut’s sisters with whom we were close and who were terrific correspondents in terms of lively description and “gossip” about anything and everything — that I find myself wanting to sit down immediately and reply. The next moment, I shake back to reality, of course, for these sisters have since died. But it feels like whiplash.
For the same reasons of presence and sense of life retrieved, however, I’ve enjoyed the instances of Helmut’s letter writing I come across. I did most of the correspondence to Paraguay, which he appreciated, while becoming well-known for Schluss machen (making the close, i.e. the last few sentences). This was — understandably — never quite enough for his mother and one sister, who poked at him about it sometimes. After enough nagging he might fill up a whole page. A letter to his mother for Mother’s Day is a treasure to re-read. There’s never been doubt about his affection for her but, once again per Malcolm, what letters do is “prove…that we once cared.”
This might be a logical place to launch into regret that handwritten letters through the postal service are no longer a thing, but I’m not going there. We loved getting letters, that’s for sure, and I’m grateful for the retrospective this trove has given me, but I haven’t forgotten that it took time and effort to write them. As much as we wanted to keep in touch with those faraway in South America, it could be burdensome at times, for they were many families writing us and we were one family replying to them all individually. I like the various and often easier ways we have of staying connected today and will gladly leave, to future generations, the task of figuring out where life has now been fixed and how to retrieve it.