Letters Standing the Test of Time

It is truly amazing what value handwritten letters hold. Letters can, like nothing else, stand the test of time. I have always loved writing letters and when I was young I saved all the letters I recieved. I thought that someday, I would like to read them again. So I keep a couple of small, inherited leather suitcases in my attic, filled with dreams, hopes, sorrows and recounts of more or less interesting events. Of course, only a small portion of these are letters that I myself have written. It is quite rare that one gets one’s letters back. It has happened to me a couple of times, most notably when my father passed away almost ten years ago.

My parents got divorced when I was ten years old. By the age of twelve, I had worked up some resentment about the whole thing and wrote my father to tell him what I thought. This letter, that he never answered, but had kept all those years, reminded me of how powerless I had felt and how much I missed him once he had left. I can’t help but think about why he kept it. I had written many, much nicer and more accomodating letters to him before and after this one, but he had chosen to keep the one where I dared to lash out. Reading the letter again, I felt for the young girl I used to be. She, who had lost her father to a new family, and who felt the weight of trying to comfort her divorced mother.

My mother had been a homemaker up until then. Now, she had to go out and find work. Interesting enough, she had taken courses in Chinese the last few years before the divorce. On top of that, she had been to summer university in Nanjing and made some great Chinese friends. The divorce came a couple of years later. But as she had this experience, she could find a job as a translator from Chinese to Swedish and thus started out her new life in a small translator’s office – which, by the way, happened to be situated right across from my father’s law firm.

Mother’s interest in China and the Chinese language was a direct effect of my grandparent’s history in China. China was present in our lives from the beginning and mother wanted to be a part of that. I think she wanted to understand.

The great trip to China
When I was eleven years old, mother did something quite daring. Perhaps it was one of the effects of the divorce. She took a whole summer off to go with me and my siblings to China. We took the Transibirian Railway to Beijing, lived in small hostels, walked on the Chinese wall, travelled by train down to Canton, saw Hong Kong, met her friends in Nanjing, ate century eggs and got a lot of attention being foreigners in a country that had been closed off for tourists for so long. People would gather around me, my brother and sister when we travelled on the trains, walked the streets or entered a restaurant. They would point, laugh and come up to touch our hair and skin. During two whole summer months in 1983, we were quite the novelty. I can only imagine how it must have been for my grandparents back in 1913, growing up far from any bigger city, in the inland of China…

The USSR in 1983 – the Transibirian Railway adjusting to another rail width
Ticket to see the Great Wall.
View of the Great Wall, 1983.

It was the greatest trip I had ever been on. And I understood I would want to remember it. So, I wrote. I kept a journal where I put down where we went, what we ate and who we met. But my writing was more vivid in the letters to my best friend back home. Letters have always been very special to me – and somehow I have felt that writing them demands something else. It demands emotion. And perhaps that is why my father kept that old letter. With my emotional letter I showed myself to him – a part of me he might not have seen before.

Letters revealing personality
The importance of letters is undisputed. In Sweden we have several archives filled with letters and documents that are now listed as Unesco Memory of the World. This fall I was at a jubilee for the Memory of the World Program and met a woman who worked with the letters of the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman at the Ingmar Bergman Archives. I told her about my research which involves reading and deciphering letters from my relatives in China and how it makes me feel closer to them.

It was the same for her, she said. While reading Bergman’s letters, she got to know him. She could almost hear him inside of her. How he paused before putting end to a sentence, how his writing changed with his mood and when he was in a hurry or not. It is something deeply personal to read someone’s letters. The paper, the pen or the writing machine. The signature, the haste or the thoughfulness… everything says something about the person, the place, the situation. It is truly fascinating.

Survivors of time
Last week I got a very special surprise. Carin, cousin of my late father, contacted me to find out if I was interested in looking at some old letters she had found. Carin and I met for the first time last year – read about it here – and had a lovely time. Now, she had been going through some things and found three letters from China. Two of them were written by my great grandfather Robert and one was an obituary written about Robert, by his old missionary friend and colleague August. I was intrigued. What could these letters entail?

Carin swiftly sent them to me in an envelope that arrived two days later. I could not help but thinking how these letters are such true survivors of time. First, they have been written in China, sent over the continents to Sweden and then kept by the recipients here. They have then been passed through the generations and finally they have made the journey through Sweden to arrive in my letterbox over a hundred years later. Opening this letter was a very big moment for me. As the letters I research are all scanned from the National Archive, it was something very special to be given these original documents from the very hand of my great grandfather. All my thanks go to Carin who so kindly thought of me and my research ❤

I will write more about the letters in my coming posts. But already, I can say that one of them is from the year 1916, undamaged and readable. The obituary must have been written in 1930, when Robert died and the third element – two very, very thin papers (air mail) – where Robert has typed a description of how his wife Dagny came to have surgery in China, is a bit damaged, but fully readable. This one is not dated, and Carin and I are trying to find out when it could have been written. I will have to go through many scanned letters and other written accounts to see if I can find mentions of this surgery.

I can not imagine Robert thinking his great granddaughter would get hold of his letters this far into the future. But if he could, would it have affected his writing in some way? It is interesting to think about. A letter is truly an element with a very set audience, mostly just one person, and rarely does one think about the fact that it could at some point also be read by others.

Postcard from Robert to Erik Folke in 1915. One of the few postcards I found in the archives.

Searching for meaning
Today, we write mostly digitally. What does that mean for future generations? Finding meaning in all that is produced online, via text messages or emails is an almost unsurmountable task. What will be saved for future generations? And will they be interested?

I think books, handwritten letters and journals do have a place even in this modern society – at least if we think our story could be of worth for coming generations. The challenge is understanding our own time and our own impact well enough to know what to save and preserve and what to discard.

Had I gotten the letter I wrote to my father back at a younger age, I had probably thrown it away. I would not have had the expericence or the understanding needed to keep it. Instead I would have acted on my feelings – ashamed I had lashed out and embarrassed about being so childish. Why would that be worth keeping?

Today, I can see why. It gives me back a piece of my twelve-year-old self and in the future it could tell my children something about me, and how I felt during a difficult time of my life. Emotions reaching through the ages is not a small matter – and in my opinion, it contributes to the understanding of what it is to be human.

So, here’s to saving letters and passing them on!

8 thoughts on “Letters Standing the Test of Time

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  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating post. I was a big letter-writer when I was younger. I got away from it as demands on my time increases and my handwriting deteriorated. I have inherited a cache of letters from my mother’s side of the family. I will dig into them at some point when I’m up to deciphering the handwriting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Liz! I remember I used to feel a bit stressed at times, when letters that needed to be answered were piling up. Today, I miss that a bit. It did feel great to give and recieve time from each other through letters.

      How great that you have all those letters from your mother’s side! It takes more time in the beginning, to decipher old handwriting. As you go along, you learn to recognize the twists and turns and suddenly you read it more effortlessly. It’s a treasure – congratulations on having that!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. När jag läst din blogg den 22 januari skrev jag genast ett svar, men tydligen kom det inte fram….. vet inte vad jag gjorde för fel. Hoppas detta lyckas.
        Det var fantastiskt att läsa din blogg och se de gamla breven från farfar!
        Och att läsa om hur du med din mamma och dina syskon reste runt i Kina hela sommaren – vilka äventyr!
        Varmaste hälsningar från ett kallt Holland,
        Birgitta

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hej Birgitta! Åh så roligt att du tyckte om inlägget! Visst är det fantastiskt med dessa gamla brev från Robert! Jag hoppas kunna följa upp med mer från ett av breven snart. Är så glad över att Robert var en så flitig brevskrivare 😀 Varma hälsningar från oss alla här i Stockholm!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A wonderful post! I’ve always enjoyed writing email letters, probably even more than writing with pen and paper. But not everyone likes to write. I save all meaningful emails. What will happen to them as technology changes? Ironically, we may need to print the emails that matter most to us, in order to increase the chances that they will survive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Brad! Wonderful that you save meaningful emails! I haven’t got a system for that. Should probably look into it 😉 Though very seldom do I write or receive longer emails, or email letters. Yes, printing them is probably the best way to be sure they survive. I am thinking that is probably the case concerning digital photos as well. How will anyone go through thousands and thousands of photos, stored on different hard drives or in the “cloud” – imagine just gaining access if the owner is no longer around. So much will be lost. It’s a major task to sort all of that out 😁.

      Liked by 1 person

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