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52 Weeks to Better Genealogy: The Lost Art of Letter Writing

by Christine Sharbrough, CG

Writing personal letters is a lost art. In these days of email, it almost seems like putting pen to paper is an outdated though quaint way of communication. However, as genealogists, we understand how important those letters have been to our family history research. Imagine, for example, that our ancestors never wrote anything down but relied solely on speech.
What a tragic loss that would be – centuries of history lost forever. Admittedly, in the far past the art of writing was for many not within the realm of possibility, but in the last century the majority of people have the capability.

However, in the last five years I would be willing to bet that there are precious few of us who would take the time to actually put pen to paper outside of a journaling class or scrapbooking event or to scribble contact information on the back of a napkin. It is far too easy to IM, tweet, blog, or email to make the effort.

I had the pleasure of writing to my 90 year-old grandmother recently, asking if she would be willing to share with me any photographs she had of her relatives from Italy. As someone who is homebound, I knew that she would appreciate the gesture and it is one in a long line of letters that we have exchanged over the course of my lifetime. When I was a child, I had always received post cards from her travels: Rome, the Black Forest, Africa, wherever she went she sent me one with her impressions on the places she visited. I have saved all of them over the years and returned the gesture with news filled letters of my own nomadic travels. As always, I received a response to this letter from her relatively quickly – always surprising to me since her response was a four-page, handwritten letter on 8 ½ by 11 notebook paper of all her recollections of her parents and siblings. My hand is cramping just thinking about it. Along with the letter was a photo of her mother as a young woman that I had never seen. Apparently, there are a few others of different family members, but this was one that she had a copy of to send. I’ll digitally photograph the others next week when I visit.

The letter will be stored with the others she has written to me and all those postcards received in my childhood.

Since I started my genealogical career at my grandmother’s knee as it were, I recognized the value of saving letters and asking scads of questions from the time I was still in the single digits. Looking through the box of mementoes I have collected over more than thirty years – I realized that the correspondence I have is largely from people who have passed away at least a decade ago if not more. It is sad to think that when my last grandmother passes, the letters will end. It was with this morose thought that I made my way to the mailbox today and was amazed at what I saw. A letter from my daughter – hooray! The tradition continues!

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