The boxes sat unopened in my spare room for a few days. I shut the door so that I wouldn't have to look at them. Finally, yesterday, going through the boxes seemed like a pleasant alternative to helping my husband strip wallpaper in the kitchen. So, I opened the first box. I had already known that the journals would be a problem. For many reasons, I can't bear to read them, but throwing them away would be like reaching inside myself and ripping out a vestigial organ. Sorry, that was gross, but it's the best analogy I could make. I set the journals aside.
I had more success with the camp stuff. My sister and I wrote what seems to me an extraordinary number of letters to our parents and grandparents from camp. The letters were typical—funny and quirky, and included incessant requests for gum and stamps. But among the camp letters I found something unexpected: letters written by my great-grandfather, Isaac, to my mother and her twin sister during the 1950s. He spent his summers in Miami but kept in regular touch with his granddaughters in New York City. There's a stack of letters, all written in neat Slavic-looking English. By Slavic-looking, I mean that the lettering looks almost like it wants to be Cyrillic.
The letters are animated and playful, like this one from December 26, 1956:
Dear Elaine and Marian,
Surprise! I've come to an important decision--from now on I shall address both of you in the same letter. Reasons: (1) Economic—I save a 3 cents stamp and 0.9876 cents in stationery, ink, and general overhead. "A penny saved, a penny earned.” "Waste not, want not." I must warn you though that if you adhere too closely to those proverbs you won't have much fun in life. (2) Health—When I have to write one letter I lose sleep. If I have to write two letters I get a nervous breakdown. You don't want me to get a nervous breakdown every two-three weeks? Or, do you? Explain yourself. (3) Variety—If I write to Marian that the weather is fine, I cannot write exactly the same to Elaine. I must vary the letter. So I write to Elaine that the weather is fine but it rains cats and dogs. One of these statements is false. It's a sin to lie—unless you must, in which case it ceases to be a lie and becomes a prevarication…
Some of the later letters were in Russian with English translations. At first I assumed that he was just making sure that my mother and her sister understood the letters. But then I began noticing a trend. In a letter dated February 14, 1958, Isaac wrote to one of them (it’s addressed in Russian and I no longer recognize the symbols well enough to even sound them out), he wrote:
…You have a brain, but it won’t help you if you cannot stick to one thing and master it. I was very happy with your choice of the Russian language. I believe it will [be] more and more valuable, especially when those that master the language are native born American. You see, the government of U.S. does not trust us, Russian born. They suspect that I and your other grandfather are likely to sympathize with Russia. We [do] not, but our government is not taking any chances. And that’s where you come in. I planned, when I come home, to give you regular lessons and help you along to overcome the difficulties of the language. And that’s what I am going to do! So don’t dare stop. Go along slowly, but do not stop. Imagine what advantage you will have, knowing a valuable language! Now, once more do not stop, or I will wring your neck. Love, Grandfather.
From January 30, 1958:
Your last letter to me carried some surprising as well as painful news. It also horrified me! Your remark in that letter that you are happy to be through with science was like a knife through my patriotic heart. How could you feel that way, when, so far, we failed to send aloft even a baby Sputnik! How can we ever catch up with the Russians when you and the rest of the kids refuse to study science? Please, go on with science a little bit longer, until we put into an orbit, if not an adult Sputnik, at least a teen-ager…
There are more letters with seemingly light-hearted references to beating the Russians. The letters were written when McCarthyism was still going strong. Both Isaac and his son (my grandfather) had thriving medical practices. I wonder if he feared blacklisting, or worse. Did he suspect that his letters were being opened and read by the U.S. government? I wish that I could ask him.
Well, only three more gigantic boxes to go...then onto the monstrous filing cabinet. But I will spare you the details of that adventure into 1o-years-old vet bill receipts and statements from banks that no longer exist.