After reading an AARP article in which Marni Jameson recommended burning your parents love letters, Amy Johnson Crow published a well-worth-reading article on why love letters are irreplaceable family heirlooms.
The two come from different standpoints. Marni Jameson is a lifestyle expert; Amy Johnson Crow a genealogist. The point at which the two have apparently agreed to disagree is whether loved letters are meant to be passed down. Ms. Jameson believes that they were never meant to be read by others, therefore reading and keeping them amounts to a posthumous invasion of privacy. Amy Johnson Crow points out that such letters, particularly love letters, give a precious viewpoint into the past.
I admit, Ms. Jameson’s viewpoint (better expressed in her comments on Amy Crow’s post than on AARP.org’s) gave me pause. She writes, “… I do believe a violation of privacy occurs when you find something personal and private meant for someone else and you invade that privacy.”
I’m glad we were too grief-stricken to realize the ethical implications when my sister and I found a cigar box of love letters in Mom’s top dresser drawer.
My Parents’ Love Letters
My parents died unexpectedly in a car wreck. At 67, they hadn’t reached that time of life when they would down-size, clear-out, and purge in anticipation of their deaths.
In fact, doing that for them in the weeks following their simultaneous deaths was like walking through a life-size diorama of their lives in progress. Exploring that diorama—their house, waiting patiently for them to come home from their trip and reassume occupancy, was an emotional mine-field.
Sometimes sorting through their belongings felt uncomfortably close to voyeurism. We came across things not necessarily secret, but also not meant to share. Wrinkle creams. Remedies. Books in process. Greeting cards purchased, but not yet sent. A letter my mom started to her sister. Refrigerator notes to each other.
My sister and I cried over each artifact of their love of family and each other. My father had saved our childhood dog’s identity tags, for instance. My mom had saved my sister’s baby teeth. (Mine were nowhere to be found.)
Now I wonder if that thought—that we had no right to read them—should have occurred to us when we found those letters. Of course, we’d have to read a little to know what they were. But should we have stopped?
We didn’t feel voyeuristic. We felt blessed.
I remember carefully, lovingly unfolding each one in our parents’ dining room, my sister at my side. Touching them was almost holy. A treasure from the past. A comfort from above.
The letters took us back to a time when our parents were young. They didn’t portray the couple we’d known. Their relationship had held up through forty years, but time had left a nick or two on its countenance.
Now in the face of the sudden loss of them, we had a glimpse of them that time’s linear nature normally prevented. Two people giddy with romance. Full of hope. Deeply in love.
It wasn’t just the love expressed. It was the purposefulness. Though they were impetuous enough to marry only four months after their first (blind) date, they were earnest about making the marriage work. We found a pro and con analysis of their future together. An examination of their compatibility, education, life goals, and faith.
Our family wasn’t just build on love. Commitment was a cornerstone.
We found that box back in 1998. I believe my sister and I were meant to read those letters, whether it was by our parents or by God. The contents still comfort us.
I think Mom and Dad would be pleased with that.