Just as our mama Sylvia was a clothes horse, she was also an ardent correspondent. Receiving a stamped envelope, address handwritten, a card with a landscape or a silly cat, graced with a few thoughtful words, was a “big boost” to her day.
Those letters, cards, photos, and child art could be stuffed into Pinkie - her stroller/walker - rolled down to the dining room and shown off at mealtime. Then, added to her refrigerator, bulletin board, back of her door, wall by the TV… everything scotch taped or pinned at angles, a happy mural of caring.
If you were to ask, “How’d Sylvia manage to survive to age 93?”
I’d point to this lost art that she practiced: letter-writing.
In her last year, whilst abiding at Sunapee Cove for Assisted Living, our dear mama must have given out over two hundred 5x7 cards of her watercolors. Numerous aides, nurses, handymen, activity directors, mothers of visiting doggies…everyone had a card shoved in their hand with their name scribbled hastily on the envelope. It was delightful to watch them exclaim over her art. My mother’s eyes would sparkle, knowing she gave something special and with it, she got to say “Thank you.”
As a final note on the Sylvia art card giving, I wanted to share about the one card that, as my mother exclaimed in our adorable interview “goes like wild fire.”
It’s a watercolor of the Man in the Mountain - a much-treasured rock face on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. When his majestic visage crumbled and fell down the mountainside in 2003, all the Granite State mourned the colossal loss.
Sylvia painted this piece in March at the request of an aide, on whose necklace dangled the Old Man hewn in silver. It’s one of the last pieces she completed. Uncle Stan - mom’s much-loved brother-in-law - passed that same year. Sylvia always described him as our family’s “Rock of Gibralter.” Both are missed, to this day.
As I was tasked with sorting through the piles of stuff my mother had left behind, I discovered her hand-crafted treasures like our Barbie Doll wardrobe (see "Love in a Swing Coat") and this gorgeous array of tenderly rendered knitting, embroidery, painting, and card-giving.
In the following video, you’ll also see the long translucent container, holding heaps of cards and important letters, that I found under mom’s bed at the cottage. That was just the prologue.
Several generations’ of correspondence poured out of various dresser drawers and old trunks.
I retrieved the ribbon-tied pack of sympathy letters and telegrams mom’s family received after her mother’s death in 1951.
Also saved are a leather-bound collection of Army Air Mail from 1946 Japan, where her father, Lt. Colonel Charles Hayward was assuming the role of a military Governor during the Occupation.
I cannot wait to sit and pore over the cream and rust-tinted pages, trying to decipher his prodigiously slanted left hand. Certainly it was the highlight and challenge of his lifetime; an orchard manager from Vermont was tasked with helping a large prefecture of devastated Japanese farmers bring back their rice production.
And then there’s my mother’s pack of letters, sent from Japan from 1947-48, after she and her sister and mother crossed the stomach-churning Pacific and joined Daddy. Imagine a farmer’s daughter, 19, suddenly presented with a fairy-tale life of chauffeurs, housemaids, and cooks. Also, black market trading and talented, desperate dressmakers.
Our heretofore shy Sylvia was cast as an ingenue in a romantic comedy that toured the other bases. I’m very curious to look over her gob of letters addressed in her delicate hand to Uncle Chester and Aunt Mabel. What a wild ride for Sylvia, and how grateful I am, that they had the presence of mind to collect them for her, and then return them. I believe these letters have value now just as they did at all points along the way - conception, execution, transportation, blessed reception, possibly revisited and in the case of her descendants, dreamt over.
So you know there are limits to my sentimentality, my dear mama’s mass of mail eventually filled two large black lawn bags. There was no way to hold onto all that love on paper. But I do get to express to you that letter-writing mattered so much to our Sylvia, all her life.
Why? It showed you cared. And it does, doesn’t it? Simple fact.
Think about the last time you printed out a tender, thoughtful, maybe inspirational email or text or Instagram meme and stuck it somewhere in your day-to-day sightline? Nah.
I am, however, looking at a small spray of cards from my daughter, my husband, my beloved mama and a few close friends, gathered over the recent years. There is a black and white vintage photo of children laughing wildly at the movies and as I gaze at it, I think of my dear friend Fred, and how our chats left us wiping tears from the uncontrollable giggles we would provoke in each other. What a marvelous reminder, especially though this time of darkness and smoke and dread.
That’s my cue to introduce what I am creating out of the re-discovery of this lost art.
I am pledging to bring back the lost art of letter-writing by starting up a correspondence with people I love and miss. I will try to slow down my scribbling to write something that is legible, that comes from my heart and is true. I will endeavor to send something they can hold onto, if they need a reminder.
I had a French pen pal - Gabriel - when I was maybe 11. We exchanged awkward attempts at writing in the other’s language. You had to be extra careful on that tissue-thin blue paper. It tore easily. Yet, it could sail the Atlantic and land in a country far away from a girl from Ohio. I knew someone in France!
Letters are durable. Letters can make an impact where other communication is nearly impossible. We encouraged Sylvia’s friends and family and fans to write because she could not hear to talk on the phone. FaceTime was a disaster, as we stared at her ear, as she struggled to hear. Zoom was iffy, as her energy waned. Letters boosted her.
As it has been revealed to me, how letter-writing can be so powerful and personal, I’m going to spend the next couple weeks writing to complete strangers. Notably, those that live in swing states.
I inherited a good three shoeboxes crammed with of ready-to-go pretty cards that our Sylvia stashed for the future. I can take that impulse to connect with someone I care about and send a card. I can ask my fellow American to please, don’t sit this one out.
If I thought it would move them to make the effort, I would describe the anguish of my mother’s deterioration under lockdown, denied the comfort of hospice or her family in her final months. How we rushed her to the Lake as she was dying. I would close with the fervent hope that this terrible isolation of our elderly comes to a healthy end. I would sign off with a sentence honoring those who practice the hopeful art of putting their thoughts and cares on a page and sharing them with someone important.
All those rooting for the Democrats, you can join me by signing up here:
If you are (sadly) in the Trump camp, I’m sorry I can’t direct you to anything comparable. But if you send me your address, I’ll return to you a sympathy card. Sylvia left us a slew of those, too.