Turtle's Progress

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Of Packrats, Mothers-in-law, and the Lost Art of Letter Writing

February 8, 2013
I wrote this post nearly seven years ago but thought I would share it once again.  Since writing it I feel that letter writing in the put-pen-to-paper sense has become even more remote.

I'm linking up to
"Grandparents Say It Saturday" at


"The Grand Social" at

My husband and I met when we were both in our 40’s. I feel fortunate to have been born when my parents were both 19, as they are still living and well, and able to know the blessing Tom has been to me. My entire family has embraced my husband and it feels like he has been part of us for far longer than the seven years we have been together.

I have also come to know Tom’s parents over the years we have been together, but not in the traditional ways. We haven’t had dinner together or visited in each others homes. We haven’t laughed together at stories from Tom’s childhood. Tom was nine years old when his father died and 45 when his mother passed. They were both in their late thirties when he, their only child, was born. I met his mother once shortly after our relationship began. She was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease and living in a nursing home in the small South Carolina town where she raised her son to become the man I fell in love with. He introduced me to her as he rubbed her back and shoulders; her eyes seemed to move a bit behind their closed lids when he told her that he loved me. I stepped outside and watched through the window as Tom and his son, Craig, spoke to her with love about their current lives and memories of their times with her. As they spoke, they held her hands, and stroked her face, and my love for them grew.

But that’s not the Mary Hood Wright I have come to know over the years. I have never heard her speak but I know her through her own words. You see, to my good fortune, the members of Mary’s family of origin, are packrats! And probably the worst of the lot is her youngest sister, Betty. Betty and her husband Harry had no children, and lived for over 40 years in the same one bedroom 600 square foot cottage in Pasadena, California. Harry died years ago, and Betty has recently also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She made Tom the executor of her estate years earlier, and, with the help of his Michigan cousins, she has recently been moved to a nursing home. She continues to thrive physically – dancing everyday in the recreation room, and chatting endlessly with anyone who will sit with her for dinner. When any of her nieces and nephews are in the southern California area they always stop in for a visit. She is delighted to have the company though she has no idea who they are.

Betty lived in the smallest home but was the biggest packrat of the four Hood siblings! After moving her to the nursing home, it became Tom’s task to clean the cottage of its 40 year accumulation. The piles were endless – trash, Goodwill, keep, pass on to others in the family.  He spent over a week in California sorting and cleaning. Little did he know that hidden in amongst the piles of newspapers, bottles of cologne, and stacks of books, he would also find his parents, his grandparents, his cousins, and himself.

The Hoods were letter writers and Betty saved them all!! Tom has passed on to his cousins the letters that were written by their parents, and has carefully placed in sheet protectors the letters written by his own mother. They span nearly 50 years -- from the time she joined the WAACs in 1942 to the late 1980’s, shortly before the Alzheimer’s began to take its toll. Through these letters written to her sister, I have come to know my husband’s mother. Often the letters were written not just to Betty, but to her entire family, with carbon paper in between pages so she could send a copy to each. Some were typed, some were handwritten, all were filled with family news.

Reading these letters is like sitting down and having a cup of coffee with my mother-in-law. I’ve heard of her love for Tom’s father, Buddie, who was also in the Army. I’ve shared her delight in her baby and toddler, “Tommy”, born when she was 38, had been married over 8 years, and had nearly given up on ever having children. I’ve learned all about 1950’s Germany where she and Buddie were stationed for a time. I joined in the search as she and Buddie looked for a farm to live and work after retiring from the military. She told me of her anguish when Buddie died in 1964, leaving her the single parent of a 9 year old son, and the trials and tribulations of raising him. We laughed at some of the antics he pulled as a child – bicycle crashes, sneaking out at night, failing grades requiring summer school. I heard the pride in her words as she told me of his college graduation. She told me how much Craig looked like her “Tommy” when he was born. The letters Betty saved made it possible for me to know my husband’s mother. I have held the same pages she touched with her pen, and the envelopes she sealed closed with a quick brush of her tongue. I feel that some of her spirit is there in those pages and I cherish them.

Now we email and blog to stay connected but there is no physical connection – my hand never touches the page where you wrote the words. We stay in touch; we know what’s going on in each other’s lives. We anxiously wait for the sound of “You’ve Got Mail”, but we don’t smell the sweet aroma of a perfumed page, or see the signature of those we love. I’ve sent and received handwritten letters my entire life. But I wish I had been more of a “packrat”. I would love to still have the letters written and lovingly signed by my grandmothers and my favorite aunt, the letters my mother sent with family news when I lived at other sides of the world, and those exchanged with friends when we were far apart. I do the best I can now – I print out and save all special emails I receive but it’s not the same. Though the printed words are those of the people I care about, I know that the paper I hold in my hand never touched theirs.

Thank you Aunt Betty.


At 7:26 AM, Blogger erin said...

Really nice and insightful, Mom, althought not exactly the pick-me-up you'd promised for your next blog entry. For your next assignment I'd like for you to write something that won't leave your readers with tears streaming down. Love you!

At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Joyce said...

A life without you, is a life full of tears.
Thank you for all the words of wisdom.
Love you lots!!

At 10:06 AM, Blogger lori said...

I love hearing about Toms mom and I know she would have loved you soooo much.

O.K. I know I told you I love reading your bolg and I really do, but I need something that makes me laugh. Lets hear about you making us oatmeal for dinner or they way you chased Mark around the house with a wire coat hanger, or even the time mom broke your car window when you were moving out, or how about the way you lost your two from teeth, or the time Gary played hooky the first day of school. The Keith family you are apart of can really make people laugh lets hear it.....

At 1:28 PM, Anonymous Meghan said...

Okay Mom, youve inspired me to never write an email again! Okay, maybe its not that drastic...but I enjoyed every sentence of that entry...atleast what I could read through tear blurred eyes!

At 8:13 PM, Anonymous Judy Dothard Simmons said...

As all good writers do, you use the personal and private experience to illuminate the deep heart of universal being. Your grace is between the lines, in the balanced way you speak of the events that tear our hearts out (death, illness, divorce and other uprootings) and those that exalt us (a good man's love, a reliable and honest friend, flourishing offspring).
Unspoken but threading through your lovingly detached reflections is the wisdom of sages (Eastern and Western) who tell us, in their various ways, to accept all of what is, e.g., pain and suffering are expectable in life; not getting what you want is natural and inevitable; fear and anger are learning opportunities; all blessings are mixed.
As your essays show so eloquently, you aren't afraid of being swept away when you go beneath the surface of ritual answers, easy sentimentality, and gated mental communities. This is what makes you interesting, compassionate, and much loved by those whom you embrace.
I feel affirmed and honored to be one of those people.

(Now, this is going to have to do for all, Terry, cuz I'm not into this blogging thing. I'm used to getting paid for writing--or doing poetry, which perforce is a labor of love in this society.)

At 7:02 AM, Blogger J said...

Beautiful story, beautifully expressed! Our kids, and especially our grandkids have grown up with many communication conveniences that we didn't know - texting! - but sadly, they will never know the fine art of letter writing.
Your description of Tom's interaction with his dear mother reminded me of how I was taught to evaluate the way a prospective husband might value me later on in our marriage. "Observe the way he treats his mother!" I was wisely advised.

At 7:21 AM, Anonymous Grandma Kc said...

This was beautiful! I still have one aunt that is 93 and lives in Michigan and who writes to me and I to her. She is the only person I still write letters to and I just love when one of her's arrives, I can hear her reading it to me in my head.

We have tried to encourage Amara to write letters. She is pen pals with one of her cousins (that she has never met) and who lives on the other coast. They both decorated boxes to store their letters and their letter writing supplies in and they have come to really appreciate "getting mail".

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Rhonda said...

I loved this post. How lucky you are to have those letters. As I read it I remembered fondly the few postcards in possession that my mother had sent to relatives during our travels. My husband and I have each kept a box of cards, poems and letters we have sent to each other over the years, I had not considered until now how important those filled boxes might be to my family one day. You have inspired me to consider finding ways to incorporate letter writing back into my life. Thank You!

At 6:05 AM, Blogger Debra said...

Lovely post! :)

At 6:41 PM, Anonymous Lisa @ Grandma's Briefs said...

Profound and beautiful, Terry. One of my most beloved possessions is my hatbox filled with letters and cards from those I love, many of them from my maternal grandmother. The hatbox in which I save them is nearly full and should have been filled long ago, except that letter writing has fallen out of fashion and the additions are few and far between. So sad. Letters are a true treasure. Your post shows there's something beautiful and worthy in being a packrat. Thank you for sharing in the GRAND Social. Much thought went into this and your photos are love. Thank you.


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