“A letter is a Joy of Earth” — Emily Dickinson
I’ve always loved letters, saving them like rare currency. When the volumes of them in my basement grew too big after decades of stashing them in boxes, I sifted through and parted with some that no longer had meaning, often written by people I could no longer remember. However, I found that even with these letters, I couldn’t simply throw them away. After all, at one point in my life, they felt important enough to keep. So, I made a bonfire and lay them in the flames one by one.
What remained after my de-cluttering was a collection that was still quite large, but now held only letters from close family and friends whose notes to me through the years serve collectively as an ad hoc archive of my life. Perhaps that’s why I love letters so much: they are a private vehicle for exchanging our most precious stories.
“A letter always seemed to me like immortality…” — Emily Dickinson
Recently, a friend came to me with a letter she and her siblings had found when sifting through their parents belongings after her father died. Imagine stumbling upon a letter that placed your parents in the midst of the Cuban revolution, almost on the very day when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
Having been invited on a boat trip by the company boss on the company yacht as an employee reward and retention strategy (remember, this was the fifties), the couple set sail in January of 1959 from Miami with the boss and his wife and two other couples, scheduled to stop first in Jamaica, then in the Cayman Islands before returning to Miami.
[Cue the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song here: “Just sit right back/And you’ll hear a tale/A tale of a fateful trip/That started from this tropic port/Aboard this tiny ship.”]
While the warm sunshine of the Caribbean was a welcome respite from a particularly cold winter in the U.S. that year, the group encountered some unexpectedly stormy weather after their stop in Jamaica that led them to take refuge in the harbor in Havana to sit out the storm.
Though I never met my friend’s mother, I felt as though I’d made her acquaintance through her writing on the page. I loved how she underlined certain words, presumably for emphasis, and how she dipped in and out of the present tense because the story was so fresh as she wrote it. What unfolded is best told in her words, not mine, in excerpts from her letter:
“We were sunning ourselves on the top deck when suddenly, about noon, an awful squall came up.”
“The captain came down and said the winds were predicted for 50 miles an hour and how we should go in to Havana.”
“[The boat] was really rolling and for the first time, I got scared.”
“We got in around 6:00 p.m., had dinner and found out from our agent that it was perfectly safe to go ashore. So we get all dressed up and take off.”
“Mr. Castro and his men had just arrived in Havana the Friday before, so his soldiers were still all over the place. They are all young and have let their hair and beards grow, a vow they took with Castro. They walk along the streets nonchalantly swinging submachine guns and tommy guns.”
“Our agent and our driver assured us it was safe and we got long lectures everywhere about how well behaved the soldiers were and how wonderful it was to be liberated.”
“We went to the most fabulous nightclub, ‘The Tropicana.’ All around the dance floor stood these soldiers, leaning on their guns, with the most haunted look in their eyes…I can’t explain how we felt towards them. They had been fighting in the hills for three years and here they were free at last and had taken the capital and everyone was so happy to see them…One of them asked me to dance…so I gulped as said, ‘I would love to.’ He put down his gun and off we went…It really was an amazing experience.”
“[We] walked over to the Havana Hilton, a beautiful new hotel where Castro was staying. We saw all these soldiers and people waiting in the lobby, so we asked someone and they said Castro was coming down. We waited for half an hour and he never came. I was crushed.”
“We were all thrilled to have been there, really, at the tail end of their revolution.”
“We loved Havana— a beautiful, clean, modern city…I’ll never forget it.”
As luck would have it, American photographer Burt Glinn was in Havana in January of 1959, likely there the same day my friend’s parents were in the city. Glinn’s photographs illustrate moments from the letter with startling synchronicity.
My friend and her siblings were thrilled, of course, to stumble into this story that their mom had narrated to her own mother in her letter home from the trip. Interestingly, I think the single reason the letter survived is found in a question their mother wisely asked her mom at the beginning of the letter: “Are you saving these letters? It’s like a diary and I’d love to have them.” While none of the preceding letters were found, this one was.
Not every letter holds an eye-witness account of a pivotal moment in history, but even garden variety letters that recount our everyday stories are precious records of our lives and of the lives of those whom we love. Written by hand, they feel to me like they carry with them some of the essence of the sender, bridging time and geography.
So what’s in your basement? Any handwritten treasures you’ve forgotten about? And how long has it been since you sat down to pen a letter yourself?