September 3, 2019 0

My awesome obsession — writing, reading, saving letters | Nina Sankovitch | TEDxSHS


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Queenie Lee Years ago, I discovered treasure. Treasure in my own backyard. My husband and I had just bought a house. It was a wreck of a house. It had half a roof, no working plumbing,
no working heating, but it was a beautiful wreck of a house. It had high ceilings,
and seven fireplaces, and a winding staircase
up the middle of it. And it had a backyard. Now, for years, the neighbors
to this backyard had basically used it
as their dumping ground. So, the backyard was full of trash
and lots of overgrown weeds. One of my first projects
was to go into the yard and clear it out. When I was clearing it out, I discovered there was a shed
in the backyard. It was one of these old sheds with a corrugated tin roof,
and plywood walls, and a torn screen door. And inside the shed,
I found a steamer trunk. One of these huge steamer trunks – the kind that heiresses
in Edith Wharton’s novels take when they travel
around Europe for eight months. And it was in that trunk
that I discovered treasure. When I opened it up, I found letters. Hundreds, and hundreds,
and hundreds of letters. The letters in the trunk were addressed
to a Mrs. Addie Bernheimer Seligman. I did a little research, and I found out
Addie was born in 1856, in New York City. In 1878, Addie got married
to Dewitt Seligman. It was June 5, 1878, and I know that
because amongst all the letters, I found an old New York Times
with the wedding announcement in there. Addie had three children. She had two daughters, Ethel and Alma,
and then her third child was a boy. A boy named James. Most of the letters in the trunk were letters that James
had written to his mother. Now, I don’t know if her daughters
never wrote to her, but I do know
she didn’t keep those letters. She kept the letters of James. Letters from when he was four years old
and first practicing his handwriting – it was so sweet: “Now, Momma,
what do you think of my Ps and Qs?” – up until the 1930s when Addie died. My favorite letters,
in this whole huge trunk of letters, were the letters that James wrote home
to his mother from 1908 to 1912, when he was at Princeton. These letters are absolutely
charming and full of life. He was a wonderful letter writer
and he wrote to his mother, not once, not twice, but sometimes three times a day. Now, the mail went twice a day back then, so a letter he posted in the morning
at Princeton Junction, could get to his mother
in New York City by that evening. And the letters that he wrote
were just really delightful recountings of what it was like to be at Princeton. And for James, it was great. He loved it. Even the hazing –
he described the hazing as a bully. He talked about the basketball games
and the football games. He talked about going to lectures
given by Woodrow Wilson and how enjoyable they were. He talked about reading
Charles Dickens for the first time and how much he loved Dickens. Now, this was a boy after my own heart. And, you know what? I did fall in love with James.
I fell in love with him. I was a young mother then.
I had three kids under the age of six. I had a teenage stepdaughter
who lived with me. I had a part-time job. I had a house to renovate. And yet, every day, I made time
to read the letters of James. Because when I read his letters,
I could escape. I could be in college again,
hanging out with this really fun guy. Now, fast forward about 14 years,
and my oldest son is going off to college. So I said, “Peter,
are you going to write to me the way James wrote to his mother?” He looked at me and he said,
“Sure, I’ll write to you, but why? Why is it so important to you?” And that really got me thinking. Why is it so important to me? Letters, why are letters
so important to me? Why is it important I have James’ letters? Why did I want Peter to write to me? Addie Seligman saved all those letters. She not only saved them,
but on every envelope she would write little notes
about when she received the letter and maybe something
about the letter inside. On one of those envelopes in her trunk,
I found an inscription that said, “No one to read this letter, ever.” And the “ever” was underlined. How long do you think I waited
before I read that letter? (Laughter) I really respect the privacy of letters, but these people
had been dead a long time, and I loved James, and I needed
to know what was in that letter. So, I opened it up
and I started reading it. It was from the 1920s, and James had written it
while he was traveling in Europe. And he had run into his cousin, Peggy. Peggy Guggenheim. Yes, the Penny Guggenheim
whose father went down in the Titanic and left her tons of money
and made her a millionairess. And she spent her money
on art, and on artists, and she founded a museum in Venice. And James wrote to his mother
about seeing Peggy, saying, “Ran into Peggy
chaperoning a weird looking guy who may or may not
be the father of her child.” Well, I guess that was
a big scandal in the 1920s, and Addie wanted to make sure
that no one ever read about this. So why didn’t she throw the letter out? Why did she save it? I know why she saved it. She saved that letter because she wanted
to have that connection to her son, she wanted to have that bridge
between the two of them, always there. So that even when he wasn’t
with her, he was with her. He was with her through the letters. Because letters are a bridge. They are a physical connection
between the person who writes the letter and the person who receives it. There are senses involved
in getting a letter. When I get a letter from my son Peter, I see him in his handwriting. I recognize that handwriting:
the looping Ls and the really crowded Os. I can smell the piece of paper
and just catch a whiff of Peter. I can feel the piece of paper, and I’m feeling the same paper,
touching exactly what he touched, just like when I hold
James Seligman’s letters, I’m touching the same place
that he wrote on 100 years ago. Do you want a thrill? You go 40 minutes up I95
to the Beinecke Library at Yale. You give them a photo ID,
you sign a piece of paper, they take a little picture of you,
and they let you in, and you can touch, and see,
and read, and feel letters. Letters were written by James Baldwin,
W.E.B. Du Bois, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, Lou Reed,
Charles Dickens – I have held the letters
of Charles Dickens in my hand, I’ve had a physical connection
to this writer that I love so much. But letters are not only a bridge
to famous people from the past. They are not only a bridge to the people
we love so much who are far away. Letters are a bridge to the past, to people we only know about
because of the letters they wrote. In the mid-1800s,
there were two women who lived in and around
Hartford, Connecticut. Addie Brown was from a poor family;
she hadn’t been very well educated. She became friends with Rebecca Primus, who was from a prominent,
well-established Hartford family. The women were very good friends, and then they became
physically intimate with each other. Now, Addie had to leave Hartford
quite often for jobs – she worked in Waterbury, she worked
at Miss Porter’s School for a while. She worked as a seamstress, a maid,
and taking care of children. But she and Rebecca
wrote back and forth to each other to maintain the connection,
to maintain a bridge. And the letters are really very lovely, very eloquently written. Sadly, Addie died in her late 20s. Rebecca died 62 years later. And when she died, the over 100 letters
that Addie had written to her were found in her desk. She had saved them all those years. Those letters are now
at the Connecticut Historical Society, where I read them. And I got to know both of these women
through these letters. There was a connection between us. And it was physical. I held those letters;
I saw Addie’s beautiful handwriting. In one of the letters,
Addie has added a postscript. She says, “Look carefully at the corner,
I kissed the edge of the paper. Touch there and you’ll touch my lips.” Now, I held that piece of paper –
I couldn’t see the imprint – but I touched that corner. And I touched that place where Addie had placed her lips
in love for her friend, Rebecca. I could tell by all
the folds in the letter that it had been folded
over, and over, and over again. And I think that Rebecca
kept it in her pocket so she could always carry that
around with her: that special letter. Now, how could they write
of love like that between each other? How could they know that their love
would be secret, and protected, and safe? Because letters are a private form
of communication. It’s a privacy that is still
legally and culturally protected. I will not read the mail of my neighbor. I mean, I read James Seligman’s letters,
but he was gone a long time. I won’t read my husband’s mail.
I don’t read other people’s mail. We are prohibited by law
from reading other people’s mail. And because of that privacy, that has been recognized
for thousands of year – Cicero talked about the privacy of letters
because of that privacy. What we are able to share in our letters
can be very intimate? It can be very private;
it can be very important. And it is also something
that is singular and unique. A letter is written for one person,
from one person, to share one special moment
or a series of thoughts in one person’s life with another person. I went really way far back to Cicero
and earlier in researching letters. I looked at the letters
of ancient Egyptians. Egyptians wrote thousands of letters, which is amazing because about 90%
of Egyptians could not read or write. So, only about 10% could. So how did they write
these thousands of letters? They would go to their local scribe
and ask him to write a letter for them. The best job to have in ancient Egypt
was to be the local scribe. You always had work. People were always knocking on your door. And of all the thousands
of letters that we do have, there are thousands more that we don’t, because the letters written on papyrus
are for the most part gone. What we do have are the letters
written on pottery shards. The ancient Egyptians were very thrifty, so if a pot broke,
they would save those pieces, and they would use those pieces
to write out a message – or have a scribe write out a message –
and they would send the message off. And in almost every Egyptian letter,
you see the phrase, “It is good if the Lord takes note.” What this means is that I went through
all this trouble to write you a letter – I hired the scribe,
I got this piece of pottery, I went through all this trouble – you should pay attention
to what I’ve done. You should pay attention to this letter because of the care, and thought,
and time that’s gone into it. The ancient Egyptians
did not only write to the living. They wrote to the dead. They sent a lot of letters
to their dearly departed. And these were sort of guilt-trip letters. Basically, “I did so much for you
when you were alive, you can’t send a little luck my way?” And they would expect
that having written to the dead, their favors would be granted. They just assumed all that trouble
was taken, all that care was taken, of course, somebody’s going to grant
my favor – I wrote them a letter. Of all the letters that I’ve looked at – and I’ve looked at thousands
over the past years – the emotion that I see
most often expressed is not love, it’s not anger or debate, it’s thanks. Thanks. Almost every letter
has some expression of thanks. And some letters are all about thanks. Thanks for being there when I needed you. Thanks for the cookies. Thanks for being my mom. And thanks are best expressed in a letter,
because of the care, again, and the time – we don’t have to go to a local scribe – but we do have to sit down, find a piece of paper,
compose our thoughts, write legibly, find an envelope, find a stamp. It takes time to write a letter. And in taking that time,
we show just how much we do care. And how grateful we are. And how thankful we are. That same care and thought
is why we write condolence letters. When someone dies, someone close to someone we know, we want to let that someone we know understand that we know
what they’re going through – they’re very sad. And we have a memory
of the person that’s gone, and we are going
to remember that person. We’ll write something that we remember
as special about that person who’s gone. And by writing it, we’re kind of saying,
“Look, we’ll remember. They may be gone,
but they are going to live on because we’ll all remember them. And they are in this letter.” When Abraham Lincoln was president,
he had to write many condolence letters. He wrote to many of the parents
of the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. When his own son Willy
died in 1862, of typhus, a flood of condolence letters
came into the White House. Now, these letters are moving
and they’re heartbreaking. They’re moving because across party lines, across divisions, people who didn’t agree
with Lincoln on anything wrote him letters saying,
“I am so sorry for your loss. I am so sorry you had to go through this.” And the letters are heartbreaking because almost every letter
tells the story of, “I know what you’re going through. I lost my son” or, “I lost my daughter.” This was the 1800s and kids didn’t have
a great chance of surviving. And so these letters
all shared with Lincoln, saying, “I know what you
are going through, I feel for you. Let me take some of that burden.” The letter was a bridge, an extension, saying, “I can take some of that burden,
I can help you.” It offered Lincoln a consolation
in his really terrible sorrow. Now, there are many other aspects
of letter writing that I could go on and on about,
but my time has come to end. So, what I want to say is I want everyone here to experience
the passion I have for letters; to go home tonight, to sit down
and find a piece a paper and write a letter to someone you love or someone you think
needs a happy note in the mail. Then I want you to put it in an envelope. And for you younger people –
the stamp goes on the upper right corner. (Laughter) And then you go out to the mailbox
and mail that letter. I think that the Westport branch
of the U. S. Postal Service will be like, “Oh my gosh,
look at all these letters. We’re not dead yet,
letters aren’t dead yet.” And you know what?
Letters are not dead yet. Letters are alive because we are alive. And most of us will not make it
into the history books. But by writing letters,
we can create history. We can keep ourselves alive. So, please join in my passion
and write a letter tonight. Thank you. (Applause)

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