The Power Of The Written Word


by Mary Jo Shannon

January editions of women’s magazines feature diets, new ways to save money, and suggestions for eliminating clutter – GET ORGANIZED! As the world’s greatest pack rat, I feel guilty and decide to get rid of some of the “stuff” that has accumulated through the years. I chose to commence with the stack of envelope boxes in a corner of my office, filled with personal correspondence – some of which dates back about thirty years.

I can’t discard all those letters without reading them, and soon I find myself absorbed in this initial stage of the project.  As I read, the words portray the unique personality of each writer. I hear Aunt Bess’ voice describing a family get-together. In my mind’s eye I see her wide grin and sparkling eyes as she relates the antics of her grandchildren.

The same is true when I read a thank-you note from Aunt Mary who invited us to visit her beach home in Atlantic City for vacations. The children were in elementary school and old enough to enjoy the jitney rides and visits to Lambert’s for the world’s best ice cream. Despite her difficulty walking with knees that groaned as they supported her hefty frame, she went along and enjoyed the outings as much as the children. Her words of thanks as she detailed each Christmas gift they made for her reveal her love. I feel as if I have had a visit with her.

I find occasional notes from Harry when he was sent out of town by N&W, or when I took the children to visit my parents during the summer. These are the closest to “love letters” I have, since we were both in Roanoke during our dating years.

Letters from my mother are kept in a file folder and I would never consider disposing of them. When I re-read them, her words bring me comfort and I almost feel her touch on my shoulder. Her loneliness comes through as she says how she wishes I could stay longer when I visit, and I experience feelings of regret that circumstances caused me to spend so little time with her during her later years.

Relatives are not the only ones whose words are stored in these boxes. I read notes from friends at church, especially shut-ins expressing thanks for visits or small gifts of jelly or bread. Letters from co-workers, no longer living, awaken memories of events from the past.

Progress in this project is slow – actually non-existent. Soon I realize that the time spent reading was wasted. On the other hand, I feel rejuvenated, having stepped back in time for visits with loved ones from the past, dead for over twenty-five years, yet resurrected via their written words. I put the letters back into the box and return it to the stack.

It’s amazing, this power of the written word. By reading words written by our favorite authors, we begin to know them more intimately than many of our acquaintances, although we’ve never had the opportunity to meet them face-to-face. We recognize the unique voice, consistent in each new book they publish.

I’ve also had occasion to re-read letters from my children when they were in college or lived elsewhere after marriage. For each child’s 50th birthday I compiled information from his/her birth until the present, and wrote a narrative to connect pictures and copies of early school work. ( I confessed I am a pack rat. This information is filed under each child’s name. Maybe someday I’ll part with the crayon pictures and early compositions with unique spelling, but not yet.)

I presented their books of memories as a 50th birthday gift. This was only possible because my children were consistent letter writers — and I saved every one. In the past, biographers and historians have found old letters to be invaluable in revealing the personality of the writers. Today, people rarely write long letters. Most communication is by cell phone, texting or e-mail, and the messages are not usually saved. What a shame! Maybe I’ll focus on organizing another area of my cluttered life but for now my correspondence files are off limits. That’s the power of the written word!