The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

Billy Hanson's friend Art "larning this pig to sing."
Billy Hanson’s friend Art “larning this pig to sing.” See the full note from back of photograph. Horse-drawn wagon in background. Wyoming. probably 1910-1920.

Note: This is the second of two connected posts. The first is here: No Letters: I hated Sundays!

As I look back at the written materials in Billy’s chest, I find, old postcards of the ranch, greetings from friends, occasional tragedy or loss, and mundane business records. Even the driest of these take on new interest for me, as I watch him purchase additional land, or borrow money for “chattel” (non-land or building property=cattle and horses).
Like Billy and Betty (or perhaps it was mainly Betty), my mother and father (Milt and Helen Hanson) were diligent letter writers. Mom saved all of the Christmas cards from their friends across the country. Each week throughout the following year, Mom and Dad wrote back to 2 or 3 of the friends who had sent these cards and letters.

When email became available, Dad initiated a blizzard of dispatches to many, many people, becoming the first family spammer. On the other hand, Mom never liked the impersonal feeling of email, and wouldn’t even respond at all. She held fast to her pen and paper, writing in clear cursive. Largely because of Mom, I think, Dad continued to write by hand as well, letters that were much more likely to be read than his email spam.

And yet… despite Dad’s torrent of shared news articles, this blog post reminds me that my email conversations with Dad were much more frequent, more detailed, and more substantive than my pre-email contacts with him. In fact, I’ve discovered research we did together on the history of Billy and Betty and the ranch in emails I had long forgotten.

Helen (Hawkinson) Hanson, Bill's mother, typed letters on her this portable Smith-Corona.
Helen (Hawkinson) Hanson, Bill’s mother, typed letters on her this portable Smith-Corona.

Another snail mail archive became important to my parents. My sister, Bet Ison, transcribed more than 90 letters written by Mom to her family while she was a social worker in post WWII Germany. Mom typed her letters on a portable Remington typewriter in 1949-50, leaving behind a chronicle of her efforts to find homes for refugees and her travels in Europe. The letters were written to be shared around the family.

Letters: A Balm for Dementia

In the first decade of the 21st century, as Mom experienced more and more severe dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Bet suggested reading the letters out loud to her. For the last few years of her life, it was one of Mom’s favorite entertainments, a chance to listen to her own history in a time period from which she still had memories. It was fun for us too, as we had interesting conversations with her. Even when she couldn’t quite remember what she had for lunch an hour earlier, she could identify people and tell us about learning to ride a bicycle as she embarked on a multiple-day cycling trip along the Rhine.

Today, with our kaleidoscope of electronic social media, handwritten letters sent through snail mail have substantially decreased. Perhaps we have lost some measure of the thoughtful letters of the past. And yet, many of our letters of the past communicated simple news of the events in our lives: the health of our families and other commonplace information that seems little different from what we share electronically now. A thoughtful, caring email can be as endearing as any handwritten letter. With one difference… I find that handwritten notes or cards still feel more personal because the sender actually touched that paper, and felt the pen in their hand, and watched the ink flow out onto the paper.

On the side of email, I think we are more likely to retain our electronic archives than we were to save letters. I would dearly love to have an archive of emails sent by Billy and Betty that I could search through with keywords. But although they had the seen the beginnings of automobiles, airplanes, household electricity, telephones, and fax machines, my grandparents died before the advent of email. And so, I will have to “read between the lines” of the few letters, postcards, and pencil scratches on the backs of photographs for the history in the Alaska Billy Blog. There’s just something special about larning a pig to sing!

Note: This is the second of two connected posts. The first is here: No Letters: I hated Sundays!