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Backward Glances: Writing Letters

One of the most notable changes during my lifetime has been in communicating with friends and family.  We have largely moved to an electronic world from what was once “hard copy”.

Following the death of our parents my sister Sharon [Laing] assumed responsibility as our family historian.  I think every family should have one but I was relieved when she agreed to do it.  Left to me, the multitude of boxes laden with old photos, letters and documents would still be mouldering in our basement.

Sharon dealt first with the shoe boxes of old photos which she researched exhaustively to identify both the subjects and the likely dates.  I’ve already written of my joy in receiving an album which pictorially chronicled our family history starting with our grandparents.  This makes me wonder about future generations who more likely will receive, at best, boxes of DVDs or whatever.  These will contain not hundreds but thousands of unlabeled images of somebody, doing something, somewhere. 

This winter my sister has turned her attention to old letters, particularly those written by our Uncle Jack Friesen during WWII.  He enlisted in the RCAF in 1942 and served as a flight officer until his death in April 1944.  His plane crashed after takeoff from an airfield, in what is now Bangladesh, on a mission behind enemy lines.   As a young, single man he left very little; a few war bonds, his old .22 rifle, a shotgun and a favourite fishing rod.  He also left something of great value to our family in the form of letters…boxes of them.

Sharon has read most of them, flagging those of particular interest, and attempting to arrange them chronologically.   These letters have proved to be a fascinating and compelling chronicle of a young airman’s life through those tumultuous war years. 

As we read those stories I was struck by the difference between written communication then and now. Long and newsy letters, often written only days apart, described his travels across our country and ultimately across the world, through the eyes of a young man raised in rural Canada.  He wrote of seeing new places, his military training, meeting many new friends, mostly fellow servicemen, and some lovely young ladies.  With so many of our young service people again serving across the globe I wonder about their letters home.

Somewhere also in the boxes handed down by our parents Elaine and I found the letters we wrote home during the years we were away and when we travelled out of country.  Through the many years that my sister lived away she and our mom wrote each other every few days.  Mom would be so excited coming back from the mailbox with those letters which would be shared with all who visited.

Back then letters were how we communicated, but it seems the hand-written letter is now a thing of the past.  It has gone the way of the dodo bird, replaced by the ubiquitous e-mail.  Somehow I can’t imagine our children’s children sorting through reams of printed e-mails, cryptically typed using abbreviations and code words and sadly lacking in personality.

There is no suggestion of returning to the ways of the past.  It just seems that we are leaving less and less of our personal history.   Our family is very grateful for those wonderful letters from long ago written by a young man who never made it home to share, in person, his adventures.

Source: Richard Gibbons. Director of Lake Country Museum.

Richard Gibbons’ column Backward Glances was originally published in The Calendar.