It's been quiet here as my volunteering has been interrupted by a busy travel schedule. This entry is cross-posted from my author blog as "The old news and a few remarks on events intervening."
Last night, we heard artist Andy Sturdevant describe his residency for Coffee House Press's In the Stacks program. He'd taken items from old issues of a community newsletter and updated what had happened in the intervening years. This morning my wife found a letter folded in sixths marking a spot in a volume of Orwell's essays.
Its discovery, common vintage and similar typeface to that newsletter may have simply been a coincidence...
Each Sunday night for seven years, almost without fail, my father cranked seven pieces of onionskin and six carbons through a manual typewriter and then with brute force wrote his way to the bottom of the page.*
He never revised and rarely made typos or other errors. I can't remember a letter from him that left more whitespace than was needed for the date and standard salutation, Dear Everyone, and the signoff, Love, with Mom + Dad written by hand.
The letters started when his one and only baby daughter left home. They ended when he fell into the severe depression that led him to end his life.
The reports were detailed yet succinct, one paragraph per subject, though the thread might range widely.
In his letter dated July 27, 1980, he manages to cover my sister finding a job and playing in the state softball tournament; one brother planning to come home and then being unable to get time off; another brother and his wife visiting, then driving with my parents partway across the state before splitting off to their home. As he wrote that evening, the same brother called with the news that my mother and father were about to become grandparents for the first time.
A lot of life packed into that narrative of one week—and that was only the second paragraph.
Certain themes recurred—local politics, charities and public service boards, and travel, usually together and mostly for work (him) and public meetings (my mother was the town's first woman mayor). Story threads came and went—a home-built gazebo project it seemed would never be completed, racketball (sic) adventures, and a Subaru he'd won in a lottery that behaved like a gift horse with bad teeth.
Here he is reporting on the annual bank picnic:
Had it in Lincoln Park and had to have the police clear the pushers out of the park for the picnic, then in the later evening they picked up some of the jobs corps boys who thought they were making off with a keg of our beer, but it was actually an empty keg. Guess we'll have to find a better place or give up our annual picnic. The group has gotten too large for the usual back yard picnic.
Yes, the floating G is a sign of man who types fast and hard, barely waiting for the shift. You could tell if you'd received the top copy. Some of the periods might be drilled right through the sheet.
His letter-writing wasn't Art, but it was an art. His own family had scattered with good reason, and the pieces would join only briefly and uneasily.
Unlike today's Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/email, which might as well be for Dear Everyone, his letters reached his children through the Postal Service. There were six of us around the country. Had a daughter not finally arrived, the Quimby family might have grown beyond the reproductive capacity of that day's carbon paper technology.
My father was a bank president by then. He could have dictated the letter. He could have dashed it off longhand and had his assistant type it. Either way, he could have had it photocopied, sparing the recipient of the stack's bottom copy from too much squinting and head scratching.
But that would use the bank's dime and set a poor example.
He addressed the fading image problem in his own frugal way, rotating which copy each child received. Somehow, he kept track.
I no longer remember the sequence or the order from week to week. Perhaps we all got to experience the sensation of slowly going blind, followed by a miraculous recovery. But it might have been that our vision seemed to gradually improve, until we were plunged back into a faint and disappearing realm.
Neither of those subtexts seems quite right, but I am sure of one thing.
He took care to the very end to keep it straight.
* If you find the ancient technology references here puzzling, I hope you can find a parent and ask them.