Standing under naked beams in the attic’s dim light, we discovered a large box labelled in my mother’s neat printing: “Lil and Fred’s Letters and Diaries.” I ripped off the packing tape and folded back four cardboard flaps. A misty spray of dust and the odor of old paper wafted up. Peering in, I dug out several small books, the oldest dating to 1927–a diary Mom had started at age ten.

Excerpted from Redlined: A Memoir of Race, Change, and Fractured Community in 1960’s Chicago

My brothers and I were cleaning out our former North Side Chicago home after my mom died in 1994, separating trash from treasure. When we came upon this box of journals and letters, we looked at each other like kids at Christmas; like Howard Carter peering into King Tut’s tomb for the first time. “Can you see anything?” asked his colleague.

“Yes. Wonderful things.”

This discovery in our attic changed my life, taking me on a magic carpet ride, time traveling to my parents’ youth, before they met; to Mom’s passionate entries of falling in love with my dad, to our lives on Chicago’s West Side in a rooming house during the 1950s, the rapid racial change in the 1960s, and my parents’ continued devotion to their tenants and buildings for almost 20 years after riots rocked our community.

All those diaries and letters exposed hidden realities: about family, relationships,  mental illness, and  race relations. To learn about why whites fled whenever blacks moved into a community, I read tons of books and articles about the racist lending policies that created redlining and ultimately the segregation we still see in Chicago and throughout the country.

But beyond what I learned from the letters–were the letters themselves. Letter-writing has gone the way of typewriters and the slide rule. It’s now an artifact from the past. But nothing in today’s social media world can replace a hand-written letter or diary.

Both my parents kept diaries before they met each other, and I love looking at their handwriting. Below is a page from Mom’s diary. Her spelling & grammar are perfect, and I think her writing has a lovely slant. She was a perfectionist.

Mom’s diary entry 3-17-1942 about my dad’s new job & a date. “Didn’t get home till two [a.m.]” Note: Mom starts writing in shorthand! Apparently too racey to let other possibly read!

Everyone’s emails and tweets look the same – even though content varies. Each person’s handwriting is unique. Can you see personality in these script.

During the 1950s, when my Dad traveled for long stretches, he and Mom wrote each other letters, filling in each other (and now me) on their lives: Mom–filling in Dad about life on the home-front; Dad–checking in on how the family is doing and giving colorful details of what’s happening around him.

Below is an excerpt from a letter my Dad wrote in January 1951 to Mom. He refers to a “grass fire” that he witnessed in Oklahoma City, where he was working. He writes:

“frantic women and children beat with rags and brooms until heat and exhaustion drove them back to witness their building crackle and crumble.”  

Powerful description too. I’m writing this shortly after the terrible London high-rise fire, that “towering inferno,” which makes this entry all the more poignant to me. Lots more here if you wish to read on.

1/17/1951 Letter from Dad to Mom from Oklahoma City, OK

I felt like a voyeur at times, peering into their lives and learning the inside scoop on their often fraught relationship, the toxic effect of my Grandma K on their marriage (see previous post), and details of my own growing-up years. This post offers a minuscule sampling.

If you have letters or diaries from the past, how do you feel when you read them? If you don’t, why would you like to have some?

Let’s start a conversation.  I’d love to hear your comments.