For the Love of Letters
by Heather Doyle Fraser
My grandfather’s birthday was in January. My grandmother’s birthday was in March. February feels like the perfect time to celebrate their love and the one-sided record I have of their relationship.
Of course, I have rich memories of their relationship burned into my brain but these memories are from a child’s perspective. I was almost 13 when my grandfather died in 1985 and nearly 14 when my grandmother passed in 1986. My sister and I spent the night with my grandparents at least a couple of times each month (maybe more) when we were growing up so I spent a lot of time with them.
They were always affectionate with and kind to each other: a complimentary word from my grandfather to my grandmother, a smile and a wink, a kiss on the cheek, a hug, or a squeeze of the hand when sitting together. However, all of these affectionate moments were driven by my grandfather. This didn’t seem in the least bit curious to me because my grandmother was always doing, caretaking, and making sure that everything was done the “right” way in her estimation. The “everything” revolved around household chores and expectations: preparing food, cleaning up, doing laundry, ironing, and sewing — a full-time job. Now that I think about it, this was probably her way of reciprocating those kind and affectionate moments my grandpa initiated.
They were married in 1929 and celebrated 56 years together before my grandfather passed. They shared the birth of seven children and 24 grandchildren while they were alive. Their story is so much more than that, too, as all stories are. My grandfather was a dentist and conducted his dental practice from their home. I actually have the desk that he used in his home office in my family room. It looks out over my backyard and has become one of my most cherished writing spaces.
It’s hard to imagine what their home was like since it housed their seven children (6 boys and 1 girl) and also my grandfather’s dental practice. To say that it was a vibrant hive of activity would probably be an understatement. My father remembers that every night the dinner table would be set for 13–14 people — not the expected 9. My grandparents welcomed anyone into their home who needed a meal and a safe place to land. There are so many stories I could tell of my grandparent’s compassion and hard work, but that’s not what this story is about. I only bring it up because it provides a little context into the full life they built, shared, and maintained over the course of their relationship.
A couple of years ago, we found letters, though. Letter after letter dating back to the 1930s, some barely legible and faded after years of being stored in a shoebox. Letters from my grandfather to my grandmother exploring his deep and abiding love for her. These letters were stunningly expressive, heartfelt, deep explorations of love. He wrote them on her birthday, their anniversary, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Easter, and then on random dates (however they may have not been random — I will never know for sure on that one).
When I unfolded the letters for the first time I couldn’t believe what I was reading. My grandfather was a poet and a storyteller. He was eloquent and each letter brought my heart aching clarity on the depth of his love for my grandmother. He didn’t simply say, “I love you.” He wrote her poems. He wrote her stories. He mixed classic myths with his own stories to metaphorically speak about his love and respect for her as a woman, a mother to their children, and a partner in life. He was a writer and I suspect that no one really knew this about him except for her.
Growing up, I always wondered if anyone else in my family loved books and writing as much as I did because I didn’t see it. Finding these letters was a huge gift. I found a heritage that I wasn’t expecting. When I was growing up, I never saw my grandfather reading anything other than the newspaper, but the letters I found told a different story. In those letters, I felt like I was reading something by Joseph Campbell, not James Francis Doyle, DDS.
Historically, letters have served many purposes: to teach, to inform, to describe circumstances, and to express the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of the writer. They provide a record of a moment in time and when revisited, provide a glimpse into everyday life.
My grandfather’s letters are different, though. Within his letters, he became a poet and master storyteller. I’ve never read so many letters with such substance, passion for life and love, and purpose. They don’t sit on the surface. There were no mentions of the weather, trips to the store, or planning for a looked-forward-to-event. They skipped all of the general contexts most letters start and end with to go much deeper into a shared experience as life partners.
Among the earliest letters was one that specifically spelled out why he was writing (and not insignificantly, why I was reading the letters some 85 years later). Apparently, my grandfather had made a habit of writing my grandmother letters that he never gave to her. Then, one day, she found one of these.
I imagine that perhaps she found the letter on his desk — the desk I now sit at daily — while she was tidying things up for him. I imagine that the letter grabbed her attention and begged her to sit a moment in the busyness of her day. I imagine that her voice caught in her throat while she was reading that first letter. And I imagine she let him know how much she appreciated his eloquence and his sharing. So from that day on, instead of writing for himself as a way to express his feelings for her, he wrote with the intention of sharing the letters with her.
I talk to writers every day and I help them navigate the writing process. What I know about writing is that it is personal and vulnerable and at the same time universal and awe-inspiring. I also know that it must have taken a tremendous amount of courage and self-compassion for my grandfather to switch gears from writing for himself to writing for himself and his partner. It’s like making the switch from journaling daily to writing a book. Different intent. Different purpose. Different experience.
What I notice about these letters from the objective perspective of being a writer and a book coach is that my grandfather intuitively knew how he could compassionately approach his own writing in order to continue for the remainder of his life. This also happens to be what I employ in my writing and what I help others to do in their writing as well:
- He knew his audience. He wrote specifically for one person and everything was tailored to his knowledge of her.
- He knew his why. He wrote for my grandmother, but also for his self-expression. This dual-purpose allowed him to access and share his thoughts and feelings in a way that nothing else could.
- He knew how he needed to show up. He was committed to his consistency. A commitment to writing isn’t easy but its rewards are huge. For my grandfather, this commitment brought him joy and satisfaction. (This commitment brought joy and satisfaction to my grandmother as well and he knew that, too.)
The last thing about these letters that he most likely did not intend was that he left me and all of my family a legacy. That’s what we do when we put words to the page, particularly in a form that lasts, whether you’re writing a letter or writing a book.
So today, I invite you to take a page from my grandfather’s letter-writing history and make some history of your own.
Write for yourself.
Write for someone you love.
Write with purpose and passion.
Write with depth.
Write with commitment.
Do this today, and then do it again tomorrow. Build a legacy for yourself and someone you don’t even know. That message and voice you harbor within needs to be shared.
If you are looking for a community to support you in your endeavor to create time for daily writing, join us at The Writing Practice.
Originally published at https://www.cmcollab.com on February 17, 2022.