When my 22-year-old daughter was living in Paris earlier this year, she spent hours every day Skyping with her boyfriend, who was based in London. I considered them lucky to have such efficient technologies at their disposal.
Then I came across a packet of love letters my great-grandparents, Mary and August Wingebach, had written to each other in 1904. Two years into their marriage, Mary took her seven-month-old baby Helen to visit relatives in Chicago, while August pined away in the Bronx. As I devoured these letters, entranced by six weeks of impassioned, quirky writing, it struck me as tragic that my daughter might not generate love letters to revisit in her old age.
Next, it occurred to me that maybe my husband and I wouldn't either. I reviewed the history of our relationship, which began in 1986, when the Internet was about to take its baby steps and only business owners, geeks and a handful of writers had personal computers. "Videophone" was the word for a technology that was seen only in science fiction movies.
Sparrow and I had a lovely spring romance in New York's East Village and then took off to tramp across Europe. Our first separation came in Scotland, when we were arrested at a demonstration against the U.S. Trident nuclear submarine base on the Firth of Clyde. Sparrow spent a night in jail, and I was transferred to a women's prison for a second night. I wrote to him on letterhead with the title "Untried Prisoner's Letter." I suppose you could call it a love letter, since I did declare how much I missed him, but the bulk of the text was a prison travelogue. I never sent the letter, since I was released the next day.
Traveling together proved challenging. After six months of love and discord in Great Britain, I took off for India on my own. The bitter letters we exchanged through Poste Restante over the next half year have mercifully disappeared.
We were reunited in New York and moved in together on East 11th Street in 1987. We bought a PC in 1988, wed in 1989, had a child in 1991. There were few occasions for letter writing, but we established a tradition of making each other birthday, Valentine's Day and anniversary cards. They are simple and goofy, drawn with minimal artistic flair on the back of scrap paper, which we fold in quarters to make four panels. Sparrow has a fondness for ritualized obsession, and I tend to rebel against it. After a decade or so, my card output became erratic. He was hurt. I was guilty but defiant. Now that we've been together 25 years, he's become resigned.
When the Mary and August letters surfaced, something in me shifted. The words went straight into my heart.
Friday Night Aug. 19th '04
My Dear Sweet Heart:
It's a week now since you are gone, and I am richer by three sweet letters brimful of my Mary.... Let me take you in confidence a little. A peep into our bedroom at night would reveal on Mary's place, her pillow, all your letters, read ... over & over again ... phrase by phrase, O how I cherish them….
August also has a lock of her hair and describes how he puts it and a small wedding picture under his nightgown—which is clean, he assures her, and ironed by his mother—and presses them against his heart.
Mary's reply, postmarked August 22, 1904:
My own dearest love,
... I so long to get back once more in the folds of your arms, & when I get back again, I don't want you to let me out of them for oh ever so long. But I feel I must not let my longing for you make me too homesick, because now I am here I will make the most of my visit, & then how glad I shall be to fly back to my own little home nest and to the only Him in the world.
I fell in love with the impetuous, dreamy, sometimes incoherent August and the loving but practical Mary. I relished their Victorian prose and mined unexpected details of their lives, such as the news that August landed a gig playing his violin that summer at the progressive Judson Church in Greenwich Village.
What a loss for future generations if the love letter dies out! When I remembered that Sparrow and I had almost no letters to pass down, I felt sad. Then I thought of our hand-drawn cards. They're light on biographical detail, but as expressions of love, they are whimsical and sweet.
As the ancestral stars align / Will you be my Valentine?
Fourscore and seven years ago / I gave you a birthday card in Xinjan, China / [picture of fortune cookie with slip that reads:] "Your birthday will be happy."
It's like touching the moon / Reaching 20 so soon!
Happy Birthday 2 U / Happy Birthday 2 U / Happy Birthday, dear marriage / We made it to 21!
My husband doesn't demand Van Gogh or Emily Dickinson; the cards aren't really that much work. Inspired by the gift from my ancestors, I have resolved to get back in the habit.
Years ago, we passed on the custom to our daughter, who still fashions birthday and holiday cards for us, with mini-stories and fanciful drawings. I'm pleased to learn that she and her lover make them for each other too.