SIR, more than kisses, letters mingle souls,
For thus, friends absent speak.

                                    --John Donne 

I have been reading the letters my sister Daun and I wrote to each other from 1968, when I headed off to college, until 2002, when she died at age 49 of cancer. In these pages, her voice comes through so clearly to me, more clearly really than in the few audio and video recordings we have of her, and she had a gorgeous voice, an attribute my husband Paul mentioned in his eulogy for her.

As I read the letters, she makes me laugh all over again, as she does in this one, at age 17, reporting on being called into the office of our truly lame-brained high school principal her senior year, along with her friend Tom Bantz, over a national protest against the Vietnam War that they had planned to launch on the homeroom period radio show, “Update,” that fall of 1969:

Tom and I spent an hour there while he [the principal] censored our program and asked questions. If he could only stay on track! Would you believe that while talking about the moratorium, he went everywhere from candy sales to prostitutes? The program is canceled, and I am sending it to you—don’t lose it ‘cause we only got one copy.

The script is still attached, a very trenchant statement for that time and place, and it’s a shame the student body didn’t get to hear it.

Each paragraph of that twelve-page, pencil-written letter brings back a million details, for example, this one:

You’ll never guess what happened last Thursday. For the first time in ninety million years we needed our English books, so I got my little stool out and started rooting through the junk in my locker. [The detail here is that “little stool.” At our high school, each pair of lockers had two long doors, each barely wide enough for a coat, topped by two square-ish cabinets for books, one above the other. She had gotten the “upper” and for some reason, couldn’t get her locker mate to trade with her. Daun was almost as short as I, around five foot, and somebody—probably an adoring fan in Shop class—had built her a tiny, skinny stool that fit in the narrow door section, and she would pull it out to rifle the shelf above for books and papers].  I found my English book and went to lunch… I noticed a paper sticking out and just as I was opening it to see what it was, Linda Define said, “Hey Daun, I finished typing Gone for the Wind for you and I made a carbon copy in case you lose it again.”----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I now have three copies of Gone with the Wind.

I was puzzled over what the long line meant but even more puzzled about the typing of Gone with the Wind. Daun was the kind of person people wanted to do things for (witness the stool), and Linda Define (who remained Daun’s lifelong friend to the very end) would be just the woman to help Daun replace the work she’d reported losing, but somehow I couldn’t see Linda retyping a 500+page novel. Then I flipped the page and saw Daun had also enclosed a second document, a copy of a two-page manually-typed passage from the childbirthing scenes of Gone with the Wind (“I don’t know nuthin’ about birthing babies”), which she was probably going to use for a class or a National Forensic League presentation. At the point she had three copies, courtesy of Ms. Define, may as well send one to me, along with the censored protest piece.

Twelve pages in that missive, and that was nothing unusual for a letter circulating in my family. “You people write notes to each other the length of short books,” a friend once said to me, in bewilderment at the note I left on the kitchen table for the rest of the Kendig clan to peruse.

I’m pretty sure her friend Bob Littmann would smile, too, reading her high school account of Sue Young and her leaving a roll of toilet paper with a note on his front porch the Halloween weekend that his parents were gone. The note read, “Do it yourself House TP Kit.” And then he might outright laugh at this characterization of himself years later, “Bob Littman has written me that he’s finally in love. Actually, what he said was that he was in a stable relationship.”

There’s a homemade valentine I sent to her, a red heart-shaped doily, with these lines in black in the center:

And we can love by letters so and gifts,
And thoughts and dreams.—Donne

So it must be from the winter of 1971, when I was taking a Donne seminar. There are many cards, actually, and in one letter, she suggests that I need to get my master’s thesis finished because she has purchased the perfect card to send me to celebrate its completion. She could stand at a card counter for ages, elbowing strangers there and handing them a card. “Read this one,” she’d say. “It’s hilarious.” 


I actually perused the letters today because I woke at 4 a.m., thinking of Daun and my whole family, how distant we have become with both Daun and my mother dead, and we three the main letter writers of us six. My mother actually wrote me a letter every weekday my first year away at college, when I was nearly dying of homesickness, about which I have written elsewhere. I’ve been reading Cheryl Strayed on the scattering of her family during her mother’s illness and death by cancer. Would I find answers in our correspondence as to what bound us, what separates us?
I have been thinking of handwriting, too, how much I did then, how very little I do now. Recent brain research seems to be telling us that nothing registers in the brain like a handwritten note. They’ve had people observe, trace, type, and freewrite a word while hooked up to brain scans, and nothing sets off connections in the brain like freewriting. I have to say that none of the manymanymany emails I have written this week can hold a candle that burns at both ends to any one of my handwritten letters to my sister. I do have to note that while our first letters to each other were handwritten, you can also see how they then became typed on typewriters, then on electric typewriters, then word processed. You can see the invention of liquid paper (THANK you Mrs. Nesmith Graham) and correction tape and then those glorious IBM Selectrics in offices we could use that licked the mistake off the page for a redo. 

Several folders I opened and stuffed right back into the file, one with notes and pictures from her five year old daughter while she was hospitalized during the last two years of her life, pages and pages and pages between her and her first husband during their long wrenching break-up and divorce. The hundreds of emails she wrote to friends during her illness. Too much. I just carried up and out and read the ones between her and me. Some of them. To read them all would take another lifetime.

Suddenly, in the delirium of 4 a.m., I thought too what a great publication these letters between us might make, what a great read for others. As someone who has read all the letters of Virginia Woolf (as I read all her diaries) and a lot of Keats, Van Gogh, and other artists and many anthologies on letter-writing and many exchanges of letters between authors (Stafford and Bell) and lovers and others, famous and not, I saw a collection between Daun and I with all the national events from Vietnam to 911 running in our background: that KSU week I took the bus home, the Challenger exploding, and a decade later, all our students recalling it, the Tiananmen Square summer she joined me in July in Berkeley....

Still our family life was fairly tame. No drugs or abuse, no arrests (though I have spent four months in medium security, spread across 18 years). Not even a whole lot of alcohol, unless you count the time Daun had one too many Harvey Wallbangers in college and danced on the table at a bar, or the time our family went to tasting room of a Wisconsin Winerie, and still the amount of apricot wine we seven ingested would be less than two bottles.  I know that James Frey’s parking ticket in Columbus morphed into a tale of incarceration for a drug habit which morphed into a best-seller, but while my family complains of my tendency to hyperbole, I have seldom been accused of making stuff up, one of many reasons I have produced so very little fiction.
After an afternoon of reading four folders of our letters that I had opened and arranged in alphabetical order years ago, then left, exhausted at the idea—with hundreds more still stacked in the attic like Gail Godwin’s cold pancakes,­­­­ I had found no causes for the disintegration of our family bonds, except the thought that perhaps words had held my family together, and that two of the three word weavers are gone. Most of all I realized --and much as I hate to admit it--that I doubt that strangers would want to read the letters. Unlike famous people’s correspondence, these letters weren’t written with an eye to posterity, as for example, Anne Sexton’s were. Sexton actually prepared a carbon copy of the letters she wrote, her editor notes. (And how much easier today to save letters on the computer, on the hard drive and a back-up drive. And in the clouds.) 

No, Daun and mine were written solely with a wink to a sister. She’s been winking at me and twinkling to herself all this afternoon, as have I, showing off our reading lists and our dogs’ antics, wondering about our parents, arguing about money, describing menus and performances, griping against wars and injustice.  

They go on and on, those letters, as emails do not, as Facebook posts do not, and lord knows, as tweets cannot. They contain pressed flowers and cartoons from The Far Side, and Doonesbury. They go on and on even as later, when we had adult paychecks, we used to talk on the phone for hours and hours on Saturdays, then hang up and call back for the one thing we’d forgotten to tell, still sending letters to each other, too, during the week or after the calls.  

So many of our letters end with P.S.’s and P.P.S’s, as though we couldn’t bear to let the correspondence end. Sometimes the P.S.’s were as long as the letters that began, “This is a short note until we talk Saturday….” Our P.S.’s could be letters in and of themselves. One particular P.S., a one-liner of a P.S., just leapt out at me as I was trying to close the folder yesterday afternoon. At the end of a three-page, single-space typed letter, Daun had neatly half-written, half-printed this P.S. in bright green ink after her black signature. It was so definitely her voice, that April morning, this dark June afternoon: 

There are lilac bushes all up and down the street and it’s all you can smell. Heaven.