I am my family’s historian, which is a high-falutin’ way of saying that I’m the one willing to take in, sort, label and store the ephemera my small but prolific clan has produced. “Historian” is not an accurate word, since I have examined only a fraction of the materials I have in my possession, but the important—I’ll say critical—thing is that I have kept them. If some future family member wants to become a true historian, well, the stuff is there for them.
I have diaries my grandmother, the artist Elsa Jemne, kept from 1895 to 1965, and 200 pieces of her artwork. I have two shelves of published books, plays and monographs my grandmother, father, mother and brother produced, and tens of thousands of photographs. There needs to be at least one of me in each generation for memorabilia such as this to survive; any one generation with no savers will result in family papers mulching away in a landfill.
My grandmother and my mother preceded me as keepers, so the collection goes back 130 years. Whether or not it survives into the next generation will be determined by my sons.
After the diaries, the most significant papers I have are letters. I come from a long line of letter writers. Not memoranda of the “we’re coming to visit you next week” or “here is my recipe for squash dip” variety, but multi-page missives, and I have literally thousands of them. They’re sorted into boxes indicating whom they are to and from, and any one of them is a fascinating peek into my family’s inner workings.
Last month, my nephew sent me several hundred letters from the 1960s to the ’80s written to his father, my late brother, playwright Percy Granger. There are more than 100 from my mother, almost as many from my father and scores from his friends. Of particular interest to me, though, are 28 letters I sent Percy.
These were written during a difficult period of my life and are a schizophrenic swirl: funny, embarrassing, informative and— especially—depressing. I had lots of psychological problems and was grappling, in the late ’60s, with the draft and Vietnam. My brother, for several years of this period, was delinquent from the draft and being hunted by the FBI (my family is fifth-generation Quaker, which, in a more enlightened state, would have qualified Percy and me for conscientious-objector status, but not so in our native Oklahoma), so a number of my letters are addressed to aliases he used. Some are addressed to his buddy, the actor James Woods, who was not yet famous, and with whom he roomed in New York while on the run.
I sent several letters about my parents, who were going through rough times. Percy had gone off to Harvard in 1963 and had missed most of the tumult involving our folks, so there were descriptions of their struggles with addiction and depression. There’s a rambling, unhappy letter written the night before my draft physical (which, thank God, I failed).
In 1971, there are letters from Dogpatch, USA (an Arkansas theme park where I played music for a season), and from Nashville, and one from “Room 241, Holiday Inn, Pierre, S.D.,” written while I was on the road with a sad-sack road band working out of Nashville called the Marvin Muffknuckle Revue. (That letter includes our tour schedule: weeklong stands at the Hon-Dah Lounge in Miller, S.D.; the Holiday Inn in Fergus Falls; the Challenge Lounge in Marshalltown, Iowa; the Starlight Village Inn in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The endless tour, or so it seemed at the time.)
There is a letter I wrote asking Percy to try to retrieve some reel-toreel tapes I’d sent National Lampoon for their radio show (I did get them back), and several letters outlining my plan to move to Montreal (which I’d completely forgotten about, and which never happened).
In 1974, I moved to our family cabin in northern Minnesota, where I met a retired lumberjack named Bill Boyer, whom I thought would be a good subject for a play. I sent Percy a lengthy description of Bill, including a floor plan of the 9-by- 14-foot shack in which he lived, and from that letter sprang Percy’s oneact play, Solitude Forty.
There’s something about unfolding an old letter, about reading words that were written half a century earlier by another’s hand (or by one’s own hand!). Our species doesn’t write letters anymore because, of course, we’ve gone digital. This isn’t a Luddite’s lamentation; it’s just the way it is.
We humans still save our stories, in fact, we’re amassing more information than ever. But we won’t be able to fold our texts, twitters, tweets and emails and slip them into hand-addressed envelopes and, for some of us, that’s a loss.