This week I spent half a day deciphering and transcribing a letter that is as old as my great-great-grandparents. Honestly, I am still amazed at how thrilling a worn piece of paper can be. I should be immune by now, unaffected by the smell of the paper or the marvel of ink on paper. But like a child watching a magic show, I am mesmerized, focused intently on the swoop of the letters and the blend of dark and light that tells me where the ink leaked, where he pressed his pen a little harder. It’s like seeing a ghost, but then I wonder if I am the ghost, watching invisible in the corner. I run my fingers along the edge of the paper in reverence; I turn the pages as softly and gingerly as I would lay a baby in its crib.
He talks a lot about farming. His son came down with a fever, but thankfully it passed. Don’t tell Grandfather though, because he’ll just worry. They say the railroad’s coming soon, wouldn’t that be great? I think you should join us out west. Linda’s peppers got covered up just in time for the frost. We’ll come and visit this fall if the harvest is good. I’m going to plant more corn next year.
167 years away and I’m in his September, worrying about his wheat crop.
Three weeks ago, analyzing Civil War letters for class, I followed a man from Wisconsin to Arkansas and then assumed he went home when the letters ceased, as he had been talking about the train ride that would take him back north. The next day, researching his name, I found out he died shortly after that last letter and he never made it back. The death date- February 3, 1863- so casual on the screen, felt like a slap across the face and I cried with the pain of it, which seems both appropriate and ridiculous at this stage in my career.
I eat it up, hungry for more, these papers with voices that are larger than life and larger than death. No matter how often I do this, how much I see, the sense of wonder always returns and I am grateful for that. Every day, I have the opportunity to meet new people and hear new stories. I get to learn from other lives and other experiences and I am only now recognizing how good that is for me. This connection, this world-collide, forces me to learn how to see through the eyes of others and in doing so, I find strength and compassion and empathy. The labels drop away and the differences don’t really matter anymore. Turns out, we are all just humans with leaky pens and a fear of an early frost. And that’s a pretty cool thing.