Over four years have passed since my mother died. The financial side of her estate has finally been settled, following prolonged correspondence with accountants and lawyers. A personal aspect, namely the letters in two of the box files I discovered in the spare bedroom when clearing her house, remains unresolved. I hope this is the last weekend of the Covid-19 lockdown, which would seem an ideal opportunity to deal with these boxes before my life gets busy again. But I still can’t decide what to do with them.
One box contains a series of letters written to my mother during my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, regarding a situation of which I was only dimly aware. I don’t know whether she intended me to find them after her death, but as she was a very “private person” I suspect not. I did read them, while feeling somewhat guilty about doing so. I think it likely that she intended to destroy them one day, but having become weak and unwell in the last months of her life, either lacked the energy to do so or forgot they were there. I haven’t shown the letters to my husband, but he knows something about their content, and suggests that it could make a good basis for my next novel. This may be true, but writing such a book would seem disloyal however heavily I disguised the plot. I have several options. I could destroy all the letters now. I could go through them again and copy selected extracts into a file on my computer for future reference, then destroy the rest. I could leave them in the box, with a note asking whoever finds them after my death to destroy them unread.
The other box contains the letters I sent home to my mother and grandparents in Yorkshire when I was a medical student in Oxford in the late 1960s. I have only reread some of these, having found the style embarrassingly naive, but some contain descriptions of the course which might perhaps be of interest to a medical historian. I was shocked to find that I remember nothing about most of the people and events described. What a contrast to my husband Brian Barraclough and my friend Jean Hendy-Harris, who can both recall their past lives in great detail and have published memoirs about them. I wonder which of us is the more unusual.
Update December 15 2020: With the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death approaching, it was time to make decision about her letters. I destroyed them all yesterday, not without regret, but felt it was the right thing to do.
Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest one You Yet Shall Die, a novel about family secrets and a long-ago crime set in southern England, is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or can be ordered from bookshops and libraries.
8 thoughts on “Letters from the past”
I have no idea why, but I suspect your Mother intended for you to read the letters, Jenny. She kept them for a reason and could have destroyed them many years previously had she wished to, and never really intended for you to ever come across them. Perhaps she wanted you to see more of herself as a woman and not solely as your Mum.
I could, of course, be very wrong.
Who knows if you are right, but I hope you are – thank you for an insightful comment
An interesting situation and one I have faced myself. Regrettably I am a notorious hoarder and have re-stored the personal correspondence without making a decision on its future. Perhaps using the bones of the letters to form a story, and writing from your own perspective, it could be turned into a fictional novel.
I agree that sounds the best solution – when and if I feel able to make a start on it.
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My apologies, I meant to say “not writing from your own perspective” meaning creating a character.
It’s definitely odd how some people remember their early past so vividly – and others have very few tangible memories before the age of ten or eleven. I think it might be familial and have been surprised myself to find that my daughter remembers her first birthday very clearly and events that happened that day. She also recalls thoughts and emotions from when she was under two years of age – her rage at being what she terms `tied into a pushchair” objecting to the safety belt and also `put in a kind of prison` (a playpen) She did not see herself as an infant and felt that her human rights were being denied her.
I clearly recall being ten months old and my father getting his Calling Up papers and have many other memories of life as a pre-schooler. Reassuring in a way as these days I can barely remember where I put the car keys.
Amazing. But is it a blessing or a curse to have such detailed memories?
Thank you to everyone who has responded either in the comments section or by private email. I feel much clearer now about what to do with the letters. By the way, I hadn’t consciously scheduled this post for Mother’s Day …