Other People’s Postcards

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When my husband Tim and I got married two years ago yesterday, we provided our guests with old blank postcards and asked them to write us a message. We handed out envelopes with labels and told each guest to write on a date when we could open them. Then for added mailing authenticity got them drop the envelopes in a postbox we’d made. 20130713_210912

So far we’ve been able to open 26 envelopes and read our guest’s messages, and each time it’s been such a lovely little blast of wedding-day memory. My son (who was 18 when we got married) dated his ‘yesterday’; many people dated theirs for our first anniversary, and some (you know who you are) for their own birthdays – so we wouldn’t have an excuse for not remembering!

Yesterday we opened one from my friend’s daughter – G, who is friends with my daughter – R. She wrote:

Claire and Tim, I hope I’m still friends with you guys ‘cos you guys are BADASS. And I don’t say that lightly. R is very lucky to have you guys and your book tattoos and beautiful red hair. And your personalities as well, obviously. Have an amazing future. G

This message is very special, not least because it makes me think about the lovely G, and laugh at how Tim and I aren’t BADASS at all, but also because it is the last envelope we can open until 27th February 2017. There’s another envelope dated the same year, but after that things thin out considerably: there’s one each for 2018 and 2020, two in 2021, three in 2023, and then the next is 2033, and the final joker dated their envelope 2043 (when I will be 76). I just hope they wrote something worth waiting for.

The Letters in the Barn

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I’m a huge fan of the novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. In fact, it could easily be my (current) favourite book ever. And so I’m very excited about the biography of Jackson that Ruth Franklin is writing. Every so often Ruth sends out an email to subscribers about how she’s getting on (you can sign up here), and this week I received an update about Ruth’s search for some of Jackson’s letters. It’s a fascinating story, and I’m sharing it below with Ruth’s permission.

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Last spring, during an ordinary day of research in Shirley Jackson’s archive at the Library of Congress, I came upon a file containing about a dozen long, chatty, intelligent letters from a woman I’ll call Anne. A housewife in Baltimore (my hometown), Anne sent Shirley a fan letter after reading an essay she had written about the Oz books, and an intense correspondence ensued: a letter every month or so for about a year, from December 1959 to January 1961. Shirley rarely saved drafts of her letters, but from Anne’s responses I had a sense of what she must have written: there were stories of family life (both women had four children), recipes, and much talk about books: fantasy and science fiction (Tolkien), poetry (Dylan Thomas), children’s literature (Oz, the Moomintroll series, E. Nesbit). There were also details about We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which Shirley began writing around the same time as the correspondence started. Poignantly, Anne wrote of her own struggle to write and her desire to carve out space for herself amid her obligations to her kids and her husband.

I closed the folder knowing that I had to find Shirley’s letters to Anne. Shirley’s diary-keeping was sporadic; with few exceptions, the only substantive letters of hers that still exist are to her parents and touch only briefly on her writing. Letters about her work on Castle, her last completed novel, would be invaluable.

A Google search turned up Anne’s daughter Nora, who responded quickly to my email. Yes, Nora remembered quite well her mother’s correspondence with Shirley Jackson; one of Shirley’s children had even come to visit the family in Baltimore. But Anne had died more than a year earlier, and most of her possessions were carted off in a dumpster.

I was saddened but not surprised. An occupational hazard of women’s biography is that one’s subject tends to correspond with other women — often non-writers whose papers are not preserved. I kicked myself hard for not having come upon Anne’s letters sooner, resolved to interview Nora at some point about her mother’s relationship with Shirley, and put the letters out of my mind.

A week ago, I received a surprise email from Nora. Her mother, it seemed, had owned a country house that would soon be sold. Nora realized that the letters might have been kept there, in an old animal barn. Those words galvanized me. We arranged to meet at the house — a four-hour drive from New York — the following day.

The barn, front view.

The barn was filled with a lifetime’s worth of detritus: old toys, clothing, knickknacks, and box upon box of newspapers, magazines, and letters. We soon were covered in dust and dirt. Mice had chewed through many of the boxes. An afternoon of searching turned up letters from various friends and family members, but nothing from Shirley. Nora had to leave, but I decided to stick around for another day: the barn contained easily a hundred more boxes. Feeling a little like Hercules before the Augean stables, I asked a friend to come and help.

Did I mention that all this was done by flashlight?

By the time she arrived, around noon the next day, I had already spent the morning taking apart the barn, with no luck. My friend wondered what was in the front half of the barn, which I had only glanced at: Nora thought the letters would be in the back. We opened the door to a room strewn with more boxes and old furniture — including a wooden filing cabinet. With some difficulty, we jiggled open the heavy top drawer. My friend reached inside and pulled out one of Shirley’s letters.

The elation we felt is hard to describe. There were definitely tears. After we calmed down, we went through the drawer carefully. Most of the letters were still in their original envelopes, with postmarks — important, because Shirley rarely dated her letters. Many were on her trademark yellow typing paper, which held up amazingly well over the last fifty-plus years. Anne had numbered the envelopes, so we could be sure we had found all the letters. In total, there were fifteen of them, and they are as extraordinary as I imagined them to be.

A small assortment of the letters.

SO WHAT DO THE LETTERS SAY? you ask. Well, for now that will have to wait. Soon, they will go to Shirley’s archive at the Library of Congress, where they belong. But first I plan to enjoy touching them for just a little longer.

It now feels like an anti-climax, but I have an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review about Shirley’s two hilarious household chronicles, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. I also spoke about the books on the NYTBR podcast (my segment begins around 19:00). A few years ago, with my two small children in tow, I went to get Raising Demons from the library. The checkout clerk peered over the desk at my children. “Is it a how-to manual?” he quipped.
Wishing you a week of happy surprises and discoveries,
Ruth

Dear Jane

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A letter to my husband’s dead first wife

Dear Jane,

There are two things I want to thank you for.

You and I never met, never got to know each other, never talked about books and writing, never shared confidences over a glass of wine, but we have shared the same husband. I know from him and your best friend that you were shy and quiet, that you took a long time to get to know someone well, but I like to think we might have been friends.

It’s obvious, but without you dying I would never have met Tim. He loved you, (still loves you) and would never have gone looking for someone new if you had lived. All that is true, but the first thing I want to thank you for is what you made him promise: that after you’d gone he wouldn’t stay on his own; he would go out and meet someone else. I can’t imagine anything braver.

You and our husband were together for fourteen years. When you were diagnosed with breast cancer the two of you decided to get married. It was a small wedding; I’ve seen the pictures – you in a simple dress and a headscarf, our husband looking uncomfortable in a suit. For two years you fought disease, facing a mastectomy, a gruelling drug regime and many hospital treatments, but when you knew your illness was terminal, you found the strength to prepare our husband for your death. When he didn’t want to face the fact that very soon you would be gone, you insisted the two of you talk about it, and again and again you told him that he must carry on without you; that he must go out and face the world. One of the bravest things you did was to contact the WAY Foundation (an organisation for those who lose a spouse at an early age). You got their leaflets and left them for our husband so that he would have support after you died. And when he was ready, he did as you suggested and through the friendships he made there he was able to start looking outwards again.  Would I have had that kind of courage? I’m not sure, especially knowing the man I would be leaving behind.

We chose our husband well – he is the most generous, kind-hearted and funny man I’ve ever met. You chose your best friend well too, and you would be pleased to hear that she looked after our husband when you died, going with him to register your death, helping to organise your funeral, crying and laughing together at the absurdity that you, at only 36, were gone. And a year and a half ago your best friend was ‘best man’ at our wedding, and she has become my close friend.

You wrote a diary, and so that I could understand a little more about the months before your death, our husband gave it to me to read. Historical diaries are published and read all the time, but I’m still uneasy about the ethics of reading yours. Although I can’t say that now I know what it was like for you, your diary helped me understand more clearly what the two of you were going through. You had stopped working by then, and it took all of your effort just to walk into town each day for a coffee. When you knew life was going to be taken away you noticed everything around you – the sky, the flowers, the couples, the conversations, the children.

And this is the second thing I want to thank you for – for reminding me to live each day to the full, to stop complaining about the petty things, to look at the sky, and the couples and the children and our husband, and to be grateful for what I have.

Thank you.

Claire