Monthly Archives: March 2015

The writing of sorrow and pain …

I told my letter writing class last week that perhaps the highest and best use for letters – and most rewarding for the writer – are those written during a time of sorrow and pain, either for the recipient and/or the sender.

These sort of circumstances make letters the ideal medium to convey the sort of intimate thoughts and details that move way, way beyond the perfunctory “I’m sorry” found on pricey cards that by their nature are so, so limiting. Letters allow depth and emotion and relational details, and privacy.

I shared a few of such letters with the class, but not the letter below. This wasn’t the first my dear aunt and uncle received, but it was the last of an exchange that occurred days after my uncle’s passing and was sent to his wife, Mary. As the inset shows, Henry’s handwriting on an earlier letter was legible. His nephew’s, not so much.


September 4, 2012

Mary: It was wonderful to talk to you for even a few moments yesterday.  You sound good and characteristically strong.  (Ellen and Reid pass along their thoughts and prayers.  Both independently mentioned Hank as a ‘good man’.)

I am just so sorry.  He was just a good guy.  I don’t know how else to put that.  From what Tom relayed, everything was as peaceful as one could expect and hope for.  As he had ministered to so many others, you and your collected brood ministered to him.  That’s as it should be.

My uncle had an affinity for letters, too, even in his later years. This letter is tucked safely away.

My uncle had an affinity for letters, too, even in his later years. This letter is tucked safely away.

I always seemed to not only get along with Henry but saw him as an energizing force.  There aren’t a lot of people you can say that about, but he was one of them.  No doubt you will hear much from people who feel the same way in Shaker Heights and LaGrange and other points in the U.S. and beyond.

Both Ralph and I will be out for the service.  It will be good to be there.  We really appreciated that, when his own times were tough, he still found a way to be there for Ralph and Barb.  He was there when his brother in law and sister needed him the most.  He brought his wit and caring nature with him.  I will miss that.

But we will see you soon enough.  My own minister, John Cleghorn, passes along his best, too.  There aren’t a lot of soothing words many of us can say right about now other than to say your husband lived as he acted and as he preached.  Not many of us can live up to that standard.

See you soon.



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The business of family rolls on …

I suppose one way to look at a weekly missive between my two and me is to see it as a rolling update on family business. Almost all of that business is unfinished; few things ever truly come to a close. Granted, it’s from a dad’s perspective but that’s the wage of writing to offspring. They get context for the here and now from North Carolina.


March 16, 2015

Ellen/Reid: I was poking around my credit card statement early last week and saw that the balance was a few thousand dollars and thought ‘How can this be?’ Sure enough, someone had run up a big bill at my expense at several online sites that specialize in young women’s clothing. Since that’s not how I choose to dress, I made a hurried call to the bank and as of Friday the charges had been reversed. It’s a head scratcher as to how someone would get my number and security code since the card is rarely used, especially at restaurants or gas stations and other stores. All the more reason to not use a card and instead pay cash. There is some sense of being violated.

The daffodils are actually out later this year around Charlotte. The dogwoods are blooming, too. This is when the Carolinas are a great place to call home.

The daffodils are actually out later this year around Charlotte. The dogwoods are blooming, too. This is when the Carolinas are a great place to call home.

We had a good weekend of weather. It’s soooooooo long overdue. All of us (especially you guys up in your neck of the woods) paid some serious ass dues this past season. Looking outside this morning the trees are really beginning to bud out. My early morning weekend walks were punctuated by a lot of lively bird activity and noises. That was welcome for a change. I obsess about the blue birds and as this is writing the male is perched on a bare limb a few feet from the nesting box. He’ll stay on guard most of the day. Some dryer lint was affixed next to the feeder on the off chance the birds might enjoy some softer cushion in their nests but they don’t seem to avail themselves of it. Maybe I used the wrong fabric softener.

Reid, it would be good to hear how things are going Continue reading

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A little apple that didn’t fall far from the family tree …

Students in my letter writing class must be weary of my incessant yammering that, by and large, letters (mine or others) are generally about the mundane goings on in daily life. Look no further than today’s example.


March 10, 2015 Ellen/Reid: The birds seem to know something about the onset of decent weather the past few days. They have become especially active now; the blue birds flit in and out of the nesting box and up to six red cardinals jockey for spots at the feeder. They don’t seem particularly aggressive but they appear to have established some pecking order for the sunflower seeds because no sooner does one leave than another zooms in to take its place. Man, I am really glad for temps in the 60s and 70s. It’s just uplifting after such a dreary winter.

Emma (left) laps up her ice cream with, as Ellen says, the "big girls." That she likes ice cream shows this little apple hasn't fallen too far from the family tree.

Emma (left) laps up her ice cream with, as Ellen says, the “big girls.” That she likes ice cream shows this little apple hasn’t fallen too far from the family tree.

You guys are basking in relative warmth, too. Nice to see Emma (The Diva) out taking her dolls for a stroll. She’s cute in her shades. Residents on both sides of me are wrestling with the aftermath of frozen pipes. The guy next to me had his garage ceiling torn out where water had obviously leaked through from his kitchen and some major league dryers were at work for days and days to get rid of the moisture. He’s trying to sell his place and the water damage won’t help. The young woman on the other side had a pipe burst in her garage wall. Her repair work seems to be done. I guess there are some pluses to living in the middle unit. My problem is with the hated HOA Continue reading

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Do anything long enough and you are a perceived ‘expert’ …

Do anything long enough and you become perceived as an expert at whatever it is. (I wish that were the case in golf and fishing.)

Not long ago I was plucked from obscurity to teach a course on letter writing. As I’ve told the sponsors – more than once – it’s more about longevity than the quality of writing.

Three would-be letter writers have been faithful in their attendance at Central Piedmont Community College. There is something to be said for a small class; the students know each other and they leave their anxieties at the door. So far they’ve exhibited no reluctance to share their writings and what’s behind their words on paper.

They’re finding there’s no real mystique to the process. In a nutshell, my counsel is to keep a short list of things that happen during their week, dredge up all the details of a particular event (place, time, emotions, outcome, observations, etc.) and write about those in any order of their choosing.

The trendy approach is to describe letter writing as a lost art (foisted on us by other experts who want to sell us on the romance of high-fiber paper and designer ink pens). I disagree completely. Letters were never an art. Each page was merely yesteryear’s mode of communication long before email or texting or telephones overtook and overran writing as a simpler (but not necessarily better) way to communicate. It was necessity, nothing more. Sure, some could spin a sentence more eloquently than others. But our grandmothers and our great-great grandmothers shared recipes and family doings and our great grandfathers and uncles and aunts long ago passed along tidbits the recipient might otherwise not know about. You either wrote, or there was no exchange of information.

Indeed, letters often addressed the mundane rather than the grandiose.  “Send me in return some seeds of the winter vetch, I mean that kind which is sewn in autumn & stands thro the cold of winter, furnishing a crop of green fodder in March,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to a friend in 1796. “Put a few seeds in every letter you may write to me. In England only the spring vetch can be had. Pray fail not in this. I have it greatly at heart.” Hardly the stuff associated with a grand statesman who would be sworn in as president in 1801.

So that’s what my trio of three women have focused on. Not the earthshaking or seismic events but rather what goes on in their ordinary lives that might be of interest to someone else. Don’t fret about constant writing and rewriting; get the letter out the door and find your style over time. Rocket science this isn’t.

As we weave our way through any of a number of ways to approach and craft their letters, my constant reminder is not to worry about the ‘big picture’ but instead concentrate on the doing. If there is an art to writing, it may have more to do with consistency and perseverance than what word follows another.

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See the kids or burn the clothes …

It’s getting to be Spring, and with it comes an urge to do a couple of things. One is to venture North to see both kids. Indeed, one trip is ordained; Ellen has her baby in mid-April but as for Reid, I’m waiting for him to signal a green light to visit Chicago. Second is the overwhelming desire to put away – or burn – winter clothes that have seen way too much usage this season. Enough already.


February 23, 2015

Ellen/Reid: It was really cold here last week. 9F was the lowest temp in more than a century. The houses down here just don’t seem insulated/equipped for such frigidness. My upstairs can be very warm but the middle and lower floors hover around 60F with the heater and gas fireplace on full blast. It’s just sort of a shoddy approach to home construction. Late Tuesday it rained with a little snowfall tossed in so there was a good half-inch of mostly-ice on the back driveway. Even though the incline isn’t overly steep nor very long, it makes that little hillock almost impassable. It took some salt and a little chipping to get rid of all of it. Sublimation (evaporation of ice) took over at night. It sort of warmed up on the weekend, if you call the 50s a warm up.

For the first time in more than a month, I got to tee it up with my regular group, including Pam, Sue and Jane. There is no prohibition against trash talk. In fact, if you can't dish it out, get out of the way.

For the first time in more than a month, I got to tee it up with my regular group, including Pam, Sue and Jane. There is no prohibition against trash talk. In fact, if you can’t dish it out, get out of the way.

The arm is feeling pretty good, enough so that I ventured out onto the golf course. I took very easy swings on Saturday as a test drive, and scored reasonably well (79). It’s actually the best I’ve posted in quite a while and perhaps the lesson is that I should try the go-easy approach all the time. I reverted to all-out gung-ho golf on Sunday and played awful. But the wound feels good and it’s a month today since the surgery. It wasn’t too sore this morning. Every week that goes by will be better for it. The return to the dermatologist isn’t until mid April.

A half brown-half albino deer wandered through the greenbelt last week. It was a very young buck with small antlers and my camera wasn’t at arm’s length before it scampered away. There haven’t been a ton of deer sightings in the past few months so they must be getting used to the construction zone. A few of them were standing in a muddy lot a little while later munching on the fresh grass the developer plants to combat erosion. At least that is the assumption. Haven’t seen too many feral cats as of late either. Might be resident coyotes culling the herd although I never see or hear them. Every killer cat taken out means more birds in the neighborhood. There’s a Web-based cartoon called the Oatmeal and the artist/author takes delight in skewering feral cats as murderers of millions of birds.

I was pretty down after Tom and I got skunked last weekend down in Charleston. But I have this Friday off and there is temptation to make a scouting foray into the mud flats down there in another down-and-back trip. I really do enjoy just getting out and seeing what’s out there. Maybe the recon will pay off once the weather and the water temps return to more civilized conditions. The drive down is pleasant enough with a jug of hot coffee and the CD player blaring. Not so much on the return when it’s not unusual for me to pull over to take a nap.

Reid, I am thinking of a fishing kayak upgrade. I rented the same Wilderness model you sat in over Christmas and it’s more stable and wide enough for me to stand. The only issue is it weighs about another 15 pounds which may push my limits in terms of lifting onto the Camry by myself. Not that the Ocean Kayak is bad by any stretch. It’s just that you wonder if an upgrade is worth it. The Hobies are the king of the kayak hill, but they push $2,500 and up and weigh more than one person can reasonably lift. Most Hobie guys have trailers or pick ups and I’m not going to do anything like that. Plus, they have this foot pedal thing which makes them zip along but isn’t kayaking about paddles? I ran into a Hobie owner at Oak Island last summer who’d ruined several sets of foot pedals on oyster beds in the murky waters and he was trying to sell his boat. He tried to interest me. I’m committed to loading/unloading by my lonesome.

Reid, I’m excited about seeing you and Liz in Raleigh. It’s been long overdue to see you guys, and let me know about March 27 in Chicago. That would be enormous fun. I’d fly on a Thursday night and take the train to the Loop and to some stop on Division or wherever it is you tell me to get off.

Love, Dad

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