Real love letters: My mom’s 20+ years of writing to her kids

We recently learned of a Canadian holiday called Family Day, celebrated in many provinces on the third Monday in February. We second the notion that recognizing the importance of family is, well, important, and are pleased to pay homage this week to clans large and small, given and chosen, with Family Week on Idealists in Action.

My mom is an ever-loving maverick.

Septuagenarian bicyclist, landlord of historic homes, singer in the choirs of churches she’s not a member of… The lady has always rocked life with gusto and generosity, and very much to her own beat.

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Me and Mom in Colorado in 2013

This could not be better illustrated than by the over 20 years of letters she’s faithfully written to me and my older brother.

The story goes like this:

My bro went away to college in 1992, and our mom started writing him a letter each week to keep in touch. A single-spaced, front-and-back letter, type-written on a typewriter. (To preempt the question that often comes next: yes the typewriter is electric, but Mom has actually never liked it and would prefer to go back to the even older days of manual!) When I moved cities to start college six years later, she began copying me on the weekly letter—yes, with carbon paper—and mailing a copy to each of us.

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A sampling of letters from throughout the years (all begun with “Hi Miss”—my mom’s salutation for me)

Sometimes the letters are embellished by hand-written notes in the margins, the odd enclosure (newspaper clippings of interest; a piece of fruit leather), or stickers and doodles on the back of the envelope.

The content of the missives, too, is always up for grabs. A weekly edition is never without whatever family news Mom has recently generated or become privy to, but additional discussion topics range from current events to timeless philosophical quandaries to the insight her book club buddy had at last week’s meetup.

I couldn’t commit to combing all 780 letters I have squirreled away in various files and folders in time to write this post, but even a random sampling through the troves turned up gems like this:

RE: The water restrictions placed on Colorado residents during times of drought: “Can only water lawns twice a week now for three hours each. HELP!!! How will this place look without that green carpet? The grass helps hold in moisture for the trees, too, don’t forget. I say: flush your toilets less! Shower less before sacrificing our lawns!” —August 19, 2002

RE: My brother, just before his marriage: “You are a powerful person and have the ability to do wonderful things for your new family. I’m thrilled that you have taken on this responsibility. Though I do have to say that the two of you seem awfully serious to me; Dad and I were far more playful. But your situation is sooooo different, as are the times. I just hope you’ll play together, too. Play is so important.” —May 9, 2004

RE: This and that? “Bonjour! Ah, that word brings back 8th grade memories and a wonderful French teacher. I still remember several French words which come in handy for crossword puzzles. Say, what would you think of a seven-foot guy who makes his living dealing with bail bondsmen, insurance frauders, vehicle stealers and more—living in our backyard cottage? Pretty colorful, you’d say? Even exciting?? He doesn’t like people to know where he lives (of course), and think of the added security we’d feel with him here!” —January 19, 2014

People often have a hard time believing me when I tell them about my mom’s letters. As a younger person, her practice didn’t seem out of the ordinary, but of course as I’ve gotten older, the unusual factors that combined to birth and maintain such a habit have risen to my consciousness: my mom’s great dislike of the telephone and (subsequently) the Internet; her unbending commitment to staying in touch with her far-flung kids—without breathing down our necks; and her drive to write 1,000 words a week—meaningfully and entertainingly—while claiming to be a terrible writer.

Mom’s letters have kept a quiet but enduring lifeline between us, undisturbed by time or space. They’ve allowed me insights into her history and personality that I doubt would have been revealed during phone chats or over email. They’ve certainly given me something to look forward to in my mailbox each and every Thursday—a particularly happy thought during weeks when I’ve been fired, dumped, or sick. Whatever’s been happening, Semper Fi: the letter will always be there.

Of all the reasons to laud these weekly missives, the one I’ve had on my mind the most lately is how grateful they remind me to be of my singular mama. She’s about to be 71 and in kicking-good shape, so I hope to have a couple more decades of letters coming to me. But even if her last letter was the last ever, I’d be set for life with all she’s committed so far.

Mom, if I ever have kids, they’re getting a weekly letter, too. Hopefully snail mail will still be around.

Which of your family’s traditions blows your mind? Share with us in the comments.

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Superstitious? The writing’s on nonprofit walls

Did you realize it’s Friday the 13th? If you’re as superstitious as some of these nonprofit folks, you probably did.

In honor of this special day, we asked our community about the weird traditions and superstitions they uphold. Check out these three fun responses:

The Minnesota-based Global Citizens Network seeks to promote peace and tolerance through cultural exchange with indigenous peoples. And apparently also by warding off evil eyes.

One staffer reported to us: “We watch out for El Mal Ojo and have a glass eye bead hanging in many of our cubes.”

Kanuga Conferences hosts 25,000 groups and families every year on 1,400 acres in the mountains of Hendersonville, North Carolina.

Says one staff member: “Kanuga has a TON of weird traditions. My favorite is ‘Kanuga Toast,’ which is this buttered, double-baked, melba-style toast. It’s like a large, hard crouton. People LOVE it, and eat it at every breakfast.

In some cases where repeat guests who love the toast aren’t able to join us for breakfasts during their stay, I have taken to mailing them a Tupperware container full of it. Some deployed servicemen have even been shipped Kanuga Toast—all the way to Iraq and Afghanistan!”

p.s. Kanuga Toast has its own Facebook page. For real.

Our own Idealists in Action blog editor Celeste Hamilton Dennis and her husband Craig Dennis (also of Idealist) met as Peace Corps volunteers in Guyana.

She divulges: “Our Guyanese friends would always tell us that we were bound to come back to their country if we drank the black water and ate labba, a local delicacy. And we did it. Whenever we would swim in black water, we’d make sure to take a sip. If labba was placed in front of us at the local karaoke joint, we’d eat it without question.”

Does your nonprofit entertain any superstitions? Tell us before the witching hour.

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Office Traditions: Putting the "Team" in Teatime

Hannah's strawberry shortcakes. Click for the recipe.

We have a tradition in our New York City office of having “teatime” at 4:00 p.m. every Thursday. It’s a bit of a misnomer, since we don’t often have tea, but we do always have some kind of delicious treat (we rotate responsibility for bringing in something to share). No one can exactly remember how or why we started this tradition, but this is the fifth year running, and the time slot has remained “sacred.” We never miss teatime.

Since this tradition has been a great morale booster for us, even during tough times for the organization, we were curious to see if other nonprofits have food-related morale-boosting rituals. After a bit of research we found out that, indeed, many nonprofits use food as an excuse for bonding, team-building, knowledge-sharing, and more.

The Vera Institute in New York City, for example, has several traditions. They have a regular employee bake-off, an annual pie day, an annual potluck where staff members bring in dishes that relate to their family and ethnic backgrounds, and occasional “salad bowl” lunches where everyone brings in a salad ingredient for a buffet.

Hester Lyons, Human Resources Director at the Vera Institute, says these food-related events are a source of pride for the staff members who organize them. Additionally, she says they promote wellness among the employees, and provide valuable opportunities for staff members to get to know one another.

Additional ideas we’ve heard about from other nonprofits include cooking demonstrations, guest speakers from local greenmarkets or farms, brown bag lunches with a topical film screening, and, of course, regular after work happy hours.

If you’ve noticed your colleagues are feeling stressed or could use a boost, consider starting your own food-centered tradition. Bon appetit!

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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