How Old Letters and Recovered Memories Bring Satisfaction and Hope.

We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Last week I was doing some spring cleaning and came across a collection of letters I had written to my parents some forty-five years ago. At the time, I was a young man teaching in Ghana. After University I’d joined CUSO, a Canadian voluntary organization similar to the Peace Corps, and had been assigned to the West African country for two years. I’d asked my mother to keep these letters as a partial record of my experience.

Dan and the staff at Sefwi Wiawso Secondary School, Ghana

Last week was the first time I’d looked at them in over four decades. As I read through these tissue thin blue aerograms, covered in tightly composed script,  I was deeply affected.  My younger self was speaking to me across the years not only about his wonder at this new place and culture but also about his hopes and dreams.

I feel that I want a role in life where I can work to benefit those among us who are not so privileged. I have long given up the idea that I alone can solve world problems. But I do feel that I have something and that I can contribute a little to working out some of our problems.

In a powerful way I came to see that the life I had hoped for has been lived. The values I held then are still close to my heart. It gives me encouragement as I look ahead to the “third chapter” of my life. I suspect it will be  a time  every bit as challenging and eye-opening as my days in Ghana.  And I hope I’ll face the future with the same degree of passion, curiosity, dedication, and openness as that young man did all those years ago.

The letters also confirm how much detail and texture of our past is simply lost unless we have journals or letters to refresh our memory.  I was surprised at the events, people, and places that had faded from my mind.  In fact, it turns out that the Ghanaian secondary school compound where I lived and taught wasn’t exactly how I remembered it at all!

My letters home illustrate the great value that memorabilia play in unlocking the stories of our life. But not just the stories.  Those letters also helped me understand something of the person I am today.

Here are a few random thoughts:

  • Start a journal. It’s never too late. Begin recording the details of your life. One day you may want to write your life story and these journal entries will be invaluable.
  • Preserve old letters. Make sure that you keep your correspondence safely stored in acid free archival boxes.
  • Search for original documents. If you’ve been hired to produce a personal history or you’re doing your own, make sure to uncover any letters, journals, or photographs that will help trigger memories.
  • Use archival documents to reveal values and beliefs. While memorabilia can aid in triggering a recall of past events – go further. The stories that emerge from the past can provide powerful clues to the essence of a person and the things that person holds dear.

Photos from Dan Curtis collection

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12 Responses to How Old Letters and Recovered Memories Bring Satisfaction and Hope.

  1. Dan, Putting these posts together every day is an enormous committment and I want to thank you for the difference your effort has made in my life and my work. Your clear, common sense adivice and counsel “works” for me and—-as a southern woman who might be described as “over-determined,” thats a heartfelt compliment. This piece touched me because I got to know more about you at a deeper level—and that’s what you’ve devoted yourself to–helping others to be authentically understood. With gratitude for all you do, Michael

    • @Michael Wirth. Thank you so much for your kind words, Michael. I’m glad that my posts work for you. I enjoy writing them and it’s always encouraging to receive positive feedback.

  2. Carolyn Thomas

    Absolutely lovely sentiment here, Dan.

    “…I came to see that the life I had hoped for has been lived…” What a powerful insight that must have been for you! You have inspired me to find that little bundle of 1960s letters I wrote to my fiance so long ago, to see if the content of my own letters was as profoundly predictive – but somehow, I doubt it will be!! ;-) Thanks for this excellent advice.

    Another piece of great advice I did follow was to write letters to my babies on the occasion of their first birthdays, all about my life as their mother and what they meant to me – letters to be put away and given to them as adults.


  3. Gee, Dan, imagine my dismay when I dragged the box of old letters down from the top shelf of the storage locker and discovered that my three neatly tied bundles of handwritten letters, tied with purple satin ribbon, hidden away for 40+ years, were NOT ones that I had written at all, but were those written by my fiance to me! So instead of gleaning some profound insight from a much younger version of myself, I found only page after page of news about his exciting university life away at Queen’s! (There were some cool 1968 newspaper clippings however…. )

  4. Carolyn Thomas

    Maybe I should just show them to him and let him bask in the nostalgia ?!?!

  5. @Carolyn Thomas. Go for it!

  6. Dan,
    I echo your sentiments about the written word. It truly does live forever.
    Thanks for sharing these.
    One of my precious possessions is the last birthday card I received from my mom. It was tough for her to write but with her Irish humor intact she signed it: From Himself & Herself

  7. Dan, my fellow APHer, I’m reading this late but wanted to tell you what a terrific post it was. I’ve saved the hundreds of letters exchanged between me and my mother during and after college and in the early days of my new parenthood. I’ve not reread them since then (and my beloved mother died decades ago), but you’ve prompted me to go down tot he basement and unearth them. (The acid-free boxes — what a good idea.) Who knows what I’ll find? THANK YOU!! (Thank you, too, for the small window into your earlier self. That was a privilege.)
    F.B. King

    • @Francie King. Thanks, Francie. I’m glad that the post resonated with you. I’m curious as to what you’ll discover when you look through your own letters. Keep me posted!

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