Another favorite is Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
And in the realm of Orthodox spirituality, there’s Saint Theophan’s letters to a young Russian singer, The Spiritual Life and How To Be Attuned To It. And Mother Theresa’s letters (which she never intended for publication) Come Be My Light.
I wrote letters to Mamaw, my maternal grandmother, from the time I was about five or six until her Alzheimer’s got so advanced she couldn’t read them anymore—sometime in the 1980s. I’ve got a shoebox (I need to find that box!) of those letters that my mother found when she cleaned out Mamaw’s house in the 1980s. That box contains my life written in letters from the 1950s through the 1970s. Because she didn’t judge me but loved me unconditionally, she was a safe place for me to share all my thoughts and feelings—my first kiss and how I felt about my body, the fighting going on in our home, my on-again off-again love affair with Jesus, really everything.
A few years ago I found one of those letters, one that I wrote in 1969, when it only cost 6 cents to mail a letter. I had just turned 18 and was planning to visit my boyfriend (now husband) at Ole Miss for spring break. I was already figuring out how to balance writing with my social life. Here’s a snippet:
Wednesday night is our Twirp dance, but I’m staying home to type my English term paper so I can go up to Oxford to see Bill the next day.
I woke up this morning thinking about Mamaw, because she was born on July 16, 1899, so she would be 115 years old today. Her name is Emma Sue Covington Watkins. What would I write to her today?
It’s been almost thirty years since you left us for your new life in Heaven. I hope it’s wonderful there. Here’s what you’ve missed down here on Earth:
Just a year after you died, we adopted a little girl, Elizabeth Ann. And Mike had a second daughter a few years later—Chelsea. So you’ve got five great-grandchildren. And five great-great grandchildren. One of your great granddaughters is named Anna Susan—after me, and therefore after you! They are all wonderful and bring me great joy.
On a sad note, we lost Daddy to cancer back in 1998, when he was only 68. And then Dan and then Barbara Jo and then Mike—all to lung cancer and all when they were in their 50s and 60s. All because of smoking. It makes me sad that my children smoke, but I understand the addiction thing. It’s just that nicotine isn’t my drug of choice.
After the thing that happened with Granddaddy when I was five, I had some more problems with sexual abuse stuff in my twenties. All of this—plus Mom’s drinking and emotional abuse—stirred up some eating disorders that I’ve had all these years. And I often turn to alcohol to try to numb the pain. Sometimes I wonder if I would be in better shape if I still had you to talk with.
My happiest childhood memories revolve around summer vacations spent at your little house in Meridian, Mississippi. I was also so excited to go with you to Kress Department Store downtown to pick out patterns and materials for my new back-to-school dresses. And the peaceful hours I would spend making doll clothes and playing around your house while you lovingly sewed my dresses. The last dress you made was for my rehearsal dinner back in 1970. And the quilt you made using scraps from all those dresses was my favorite wedding gift.
On weekends you would take me out to the country to play with my cousin, David, while you and Aunt Lorena went fishing in the little pond behind her house. David and I would pick blackberries and swim in the pond and wander freely around the family property, visiting in and out of my cousins and aunts and uncles’ houses. I love the city, but those memories of that time with my country cousins is priceless.
I loved going to Vacation Bible School at the Presbyterian Church in Meridian during those summers. And swimming at Northwood Country Club and watching Daddy play in the invitational golf tournament every summer back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I also loved making homemade rolls, homemade ice cream, and especially skillet-fried corn with you. Remember how we used to walk just a few blocks from your house to Culpepper’s Grocery to pick up what we needed for supper? Boy, have times changed.
I think you can probably see everything that’s been happening down here since you’ve been gone, and maybe it’s a good thing you aren’t here for all the craziness—although you did live through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Korean War and Vietnam. Your oldest grandson, Jonathan, fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but thankfully he’s out of the Army now and flies med evac helicopters.
As you probably know, Mom is still at Lakeland Nursing Home, where you lived out your final years. She also has Alzheimer’s and isn’t really sure who I am anymore. The good news is that she’s forgotten how to criticize me and no longer comments on how fat I am or how she doesn’t like my hair or clothes. She’s usually smiling when I visit her, and I often have flashbacks of going with her to visit you before we moved to Memphis in 1988. I’m sorry I didn’t visit more often. I could offer excuses, but I think you probably already know what all was going on back then. She’s 86 now, so she’s outlived you by one year so far. I really think she would be happier in Heaven with Daddy and you and Jesus—her three favorite people—but I guess that’s up to God to decide.
I could go on and on but I just wanted to say Happy Birthday and that I love you. You have always been my favorite person, and I’m so happy to be named after you. Thanks for loving me.