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December 09, 2002: Random Acts - No more to leave you than words

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Random Acts of Journaling: November (I think. Yes, I'm a little behind for that month)

It is a pity that I have not more to leave you than words. But what is a life, after all, but a story, some fiction and some truth?

J. Nozipo Maraire, Zenzele: A Letter for my Daughter

My grandfather was very much into tracking down ancestry, and during the last few years of his life he put together detailed family trees, which he then distributed to all his descendents. These trees trace my maternal side of the family back for generations, back to when they first came across the sea from the British Isles and settled somewhere in the east coast. And through it all, these notebooks full of names and dates, there are occasional tidbits of information, sketched in as he found them. It is from his research that we have discovered that our family is related to the original Lady Godiva. Sadly, this does not grant us a discount to the Godiva chocolate store. Family rumor has it that we are also related to Richard the Lion-hearted through one of his bastard children, but this is more likely to just be humorous speculation. I think if given the choice between blood ties to a king or to a lady brave enough to go riding through town wearing nothing but her hair, I'll pick the naked lady. After all, this weird streak in me had to come from somewhere.

A lot of the information is in the form of summaries from the annual family reunions. Snippets of data appear - the number of relatives who attended, and sometimes a list of names, or occasionally a bit of news about someone or a scrap about what was done at the reunion. I remember one year the quick sentence jotted down - purchased ice cream. I can only assume that perhaps back then, ice cream wasn't nearly as common as it is now.

My grandfather wrote letters, and instilled this practice in his three daughters. As we were growing up, every time we left home, for summer camp or for longer periods such as when we went to college, my mother would write us letters. Sometimes even when we were home, coming back from school to an empty house, there would be a letter waiting for us on the table. Sometimes it was something a bit silly, but with long and detailed stories, like the time her letter noted she'd been kidnapped by Lithuanian farmers. Sometimes it was short, simply noting when she'd be home, and telling us that she loved us. The college letters were always long and informative, with stories of the latest escapades. Occasionally she'd forget to whom she'd given what information, and I'd get cryptic missives that would result in frantic phone calls home. The most memorable was when the letter started with a brief phrase about my father's car accident. That had me scrambling for the phone - what accident? Turned out that my dad was just fine and we got a good laugh out of it.. And I can still close my eyes and recall the hilarious description of her canning fiasco, involving a pressure cooker that exploded, raining strawberry jam everywhere.

My mom tried to instill in us that same training for letter writing, but I think it only stuck in a few of her daughters. Email was made for people like me - the ability to fire off short notes without having to scrounge for envelopes or stamps, or worse yet, actually get the letter into the mail. Letters would be started and then left to slowly disappear under piles of other things on my desk. Finished letters sometimes wouldn't get mailed til days or weeks later because I could never remember to pop them into a mailbox. But when we were younger, I wrote letters. I wrote letters to my aunts and uncles, and sometimes even to cousins. I wrote thank you notes after every birthday and holiday that entailed receipt of gifts. And sometimes I wrote notes just because.

When my uncle died years ago - the uncle who was not so much a blood relative as such a close friend that he became relative instead - we found all the letters we ever sent to him, stored carefully in bags amid the clutter of his house. Letters that dated back to when my sisters and I were very young, and our handwriting barely legible (sometimes with a translation note inserted by my mother). Some time after, I sat down with the bag and read through all those letters. Most of them I never remember writing, and most of the things I wrote about I don't remember doing. It was a window into a life I'd long since forgotten - those words written in childish script on colored, decorated sheets of paper. Who knew that writing them down all those years ago would bring them back to me one day in the distant future.

Reading those letters from myself makes me wish I'd hung onto the letters my mother wrote to me over the years. She has a sense of humor in writing and can paint the picture so clearly sometimes. For years we've told her she needs to compile those letters into a book, and for years she always replies with a nod, and a laughing "Someday." But someday she won't be here anymore, and those letters are all we'll have left to pass on to her descendants - letters that her grandchildren and great grandchildren can pour over, like I poured over that binder from my grandfather, to catch a glimpse of what she was like.

I will not leave a legacy of letters. But I still am leaving my words behind. The personal journals I write in - those are not for future generations to read because those list my frustrations and my anxieties and my silly worries about all the inconsequential things. These, though, are the words I wish to leave. My life in stories, with a little fiction, and a little exaggeration, and mostly, a lot of truth.

Once again I am taking part in Holidailies, and have thus made the commitment to try to post every day this month. You can find guaranteed reading material from all of us participating at the Holidailies portal.

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