Book Review: Last Letter from Your Lover

Reviewed by Mary Jedlicka Humston

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I’ll admit from the start that I am a JoJo Moyes fan. I love her fast-paced, emotionally-engaging novels. Her characters and plots hold me long after I’ve read the last sentence. So, it’s no surprise I enjoyed The Last Letter from Your Lover.
If you’ve ever wondered about the importance of a handwritten letter, then this novel will prove how one letter (received or not received) changed lives.
Let me explain. Moyes takes you back in time to the early 1960s to main character Jennifer, the wife of rich Laurence, and to her lover “B.” Jennifer and “B’s” letters become even more intriguing when Jennifer suffers a head injury and can’t remember anything. And, I do mean anything.
The action moves to 2003 when Ellie, a young journalist, discovers one of “B’s” letters stuffed in an old box hidden away in her newspaper’s archived library. Ellie becomes intrigued enough to doggedly pursue the details.
I don’t want to give too much away, other than you’ll be turning pages long after you should’ve gone to bed. While I’m usually not too keen reading about infidelity and cheating spouses, the storyline takes you onto deeper issues of merit.
The author’s superb storytelling will make this one hard to put down. Enjoy.

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Letters from Mom~

I spent an entire afternoon with my mom today.

That’s quite a feat, considering my mother passed away in 2010, but it’s possible when you save letters.

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An article in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, ‘Letters to Jane’ prompted this visit with Mom. The article was about a Dyersville woman who wrote her daughter Jane hundreds of letters while she attended the Iowa School for the Deaf in the 60’s and 70’s. It got me to thinking about the box of letters I store in my trunk. I kept every letter my mother ever wrote me, but until today, I hadn’t taken the time to look through them.  I’ve read, and re-read, the letters she wrote my grandmother in the 60’s. Since her death, I’ve read her notebooks and the Memory book she filled out for me, but for some reason, I’ve never revisited some 200 letters I had stashed away.

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How appropriate that the first one I pulled out of the (unorganized) box was dated 36 years ago yesterday.

In this letter, Mom informs me that there is a little snow falling, but my Dad doesn’t think it will amount to much. She also tells me that the previous week was the warmest January she could remember and she even hung out laundry and Dad raked leaves. The letter continues for two pages. My brother John had just been laid off work and was waiting for unemployment to kick in. My younger sister Jane had to stay home from school for several days with an earache, and my sister Pat’s children were recovering from the flu. But what I hold most precious from this letter are the words of encouragement regarding my college classes. I began attending the University of Northern Iowa in the fall of 1978, got married in the summer of 1979, and had my first child in March 1980. At the time my mother wrote this letter, David and I were both taking classes and working part-time, but we’d arranged it so that one of us was always with Dan.

“When we think back on it, we realize there must have been a lot of determination on your part to finish school, and you must have had a lot of discouragement too. Putting your stubbornness to good use,” my mother had written, a back-handed compliment (was she calling me stubborn?), but precious words of encouragement, nonetheless. As were these words, before my graduation in December 1985.

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She didn’t make it to the graduation celebration, but there were several more letters that revealed her frustration and disappointment at not being there.

My Dad died the following May, and my mother became a widow at the age of 58, just a year older than I am now. I lived in Cedar Falls at the time so wasn’t privy to much of her grieving, but she shared pieces of it in her subsequent letters. She knew that first Father’s Day would be hard for all of us.

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That first holiday season must have been excruciating for her, and yet she was still thinking of her children. This also wasn’t the only time she expressed a desire to write more letters.

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I hadn’t remembered that Mom had attended a bereavement support group. This was in September, four months after his death.

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Just four months after the death of her husband, and my mother was “helping” others in their grief. Note, too, how she laments the letters she owes others.

Many of the letters left me in tears, made me wish for another chance to talk to Mom, to ask her a question, or comment on something she’d written. There was laughter too, with some of Mom’s descriptions. Occasionally, a note from one of my younger sisters was included in an envelope. Once or twice, my dad wrote something.

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But it was these words that really touched my heart today as I face some decisions in my life.

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Thanks, Mom. I needed that.

 

What a “good mail day” looks like to one of the Marys

A couple of my children might tell you they are scarred for life because their mother actually used to sing this song when she spotted the mailman at the end of the driveway.

I nearly sang it today when I arrived home from work and saw these things in my mail:

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The boxes of vintage stationery were purchased on eBay. The textbook is for a course I am taking toward grief counseling certification. And what mail day would be complete without a letter, from the other Mary of course.

While I didn’t immediately sit down and write a letter, I did begin reading the textbook, getting to page 55 before I looked up and realized it had gotten dark outside. Yes, I love learning, and am fascinated by anything related to grief or psychology, and this textbook includes both.

It doesn’t take a lot to make either Mary happy, but a good mail day truly makes me want to sing!

 

Book Review: Dear Ann, Dear Mary

“Where was I in your grief? I feel like such a thoughtless, insensitive person not to have been aware of what you were going through, not to have called you as you have called me just to say help, not to have communicated more that I care about you and your family- not just at Stu’s memorial service but weeks, months, and years after. Because you have such a loving heart, I feel you have not blamed me, but I am remorseful. You are teaching me how to give comfort to others.”

So wrote Ann Carli to her friend Mary Scherr in Dear Ann, Dear Mary, a compilation of actual letters and e-mails exchanged between the two women in the year after Ann’s husband died. Mary’s husband had died five years before. The women share poetry, prayers, creative rituals, and dreams in these exchanges.

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Where was I in your grief? This is not a question my Mary (Mary Jedlicka Humston) will ever have to ask me. Readers of Mary & Me know exactly where she was after the death of my husband in 2012. Mary sat next to me and held my hand during a portion of David’s wake. She wrote me letters. She drove 80 miles once a month to take me out to lunch. Despite not having experienced widowhood herself, she somehow knew what it was that I needed, and as uncomfortable as it was to companion someone through their grief, she still did it. She has continued to be there for me in the weeks, months, and yes, years following the loss of my husband.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but contemplate a future when I will be the experienced widow. These two women were in their 70s.  Despite the unfairness of me having to face the same situation in my early 50’s, I trust that my experience will someday help me companion others in their journey.

~Greeting Card Request Alert~

What fun! We have a request from one of our followers. Do you have a greeting card to share with her mother? It only takes a minute or two and will bring a smile to the face of this multi-talented mother.

From Erin:
“My mom, Lois, is finally(!) retiring after years of being a hairdresser, county clerk, a lunch lady, and dietitian in anywhere from hospitals-nursing homes-WIC. She’s very much looking forward to getting back to her hobbies and spending more time with her grandchildren, and not waking up at 5:30 am (unless she wants to, which is never). I want to surprise her with a big basket of retirement well wishes and have already asked friends, family, and all of her previous places of employment…but why stop there? I’ve started asking some of her favorite places to shop and eat and am now turning to the World Wide Web for help getting the world out. I’d love funny and or/thoughtful cards from all over to include in the basket, and I’m happy to write a card in return (so please include a return address if you’d like a card back) telling about when she opens all the letters. Please send cards by January 10, 2017 to:
Lois G.
c/o Erin Thompson
4214 Rownd St.
Cedar Falls, IA 50613

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Do you have a greeting card request for us?

Book Review: From Heart to Hand

From Heart to Hand: The Lost Art of a Written Letter
by Kristin Horvath
reviewed by Mary Jedlicka Humston

“Writing letters is what I love to do. It is a passion I have because I know receiving a personalized written letter brings joy to those who receive them and because it is a lost art I want to preserve and revitalize.”(pg. 69).

Kristin Horvath’s From Heart to Hand: The Lost Art of a Written Letter celebrates the magic of composing and receiving letters. Her passion is strong, evidenced by the fact that she shares actual letters she’s written to friends, family, and even strangers who inspired her.
As she says in her introduction, these letters are honest, sometimes a bit embarrassing, but always heartfelt. Each one is accompanied by a short commentary.

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…I have written to people who have inspired me or helped me, thanking them for the help or inspiration they provided in my life. If you enjoy love, laughter, and sentimental stories that show complete vulnerability, you will enjoy sinking your teeth into this work, and you might end up writing a letter to someone you have been meaning to catch up with.”- from the Intro

Catch Horvath’s enthusiasm. Pick up pen and paper to write that letter you’ve been meaning to send. Express your gratitude and thanks for the ways others have touched you. Now is the perfect time. Who wouldn’t love receiving such a letter like this as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches?
And, now is also the perfect time to pick up Horvath’s book and be reminded all over again how fun, wonderful, and powerful a letter can be.

You can read more about Kristin here.

Book Review: They Left Us Everything

When author Plum Johnson’s mother passes away, she is given the dubious honor of going through her parent’s belongings to prepare the family home to be put on the market. She moves in temporarily, prepared to buy garbage bags and purge. What was supposed to take six weeks ended up taking sixteen months, and what Johnson learns about herself, her parents, and the complicated relationship she had with her mother makes for a spellbinding read. Yes, once again, I finished an entire book in one sitting.

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They Left Us Everything  is heartbreakingly sad one minute, raucously funny another. Johnson, who’d cared for both her ailing father and mother, delves into a somewhat eccentric childhood, as she searches for answers to her questions about her mother, in particular. She wishes for diaries.

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Instead, what Johnson is looking for she finds in packets of letters stuffed into plastic bags in one of the 23-rooms of her parent’s house. Hundreds of letters; written by her mother and to her mother. A treasure trove of letters she arranges chronologically, then slips each into archival plastic sheets that fill more than 40 binders.

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What will my children find after I’m gone? This book convinced me they’ll find it all; the letters I’ve saved, my journals, and the daybooks I filled while I was raising young children. I won’t have 23 rooms to clear out, but there will be plenty of paper I’m trusting my daughters to go through with a discerning eye.

“Am I my mother’s biographer? Do all daughters become their mother’s biographers, taking her history and passing it on to future generations? Writing letters was one of Mum’s greatest talents, and here is the record of her life. At the end of our lives, we become only memories. If we’re luck, someone is passing those down.” (page 259)

Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life

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Readers of Mary & Me will know that Mary Humston was that kind of friend for me after the death of my husband in 2012. She still is.

Henri Nouwen was that kind of friend to those who corresponded with him. An internationally renowned priest and author, respected professor and beloved pastor, Nouwen wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life. He corresponded regularly in English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish with hundreds of friends and reached out to thousands through his books, lectures and retreats. Since his death in 1996, his literary legacy has only increased, with readers, writers, teachers and spiritual seekers being guided by his words.

When he died, he left behind a treasury of personal papers, including 16,000 letters. He not only kept every postcard, piece of paper, and greeting card that arrived in his mail, he responded to each of them.

Love Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life is a collection of letters that spans more than two decades, from Nouwen’s years as a professor, to his time as a Trappist monk, to missionary work in Latin American, and finally his role as a pastor of a community of people with disabilities. Friends wrote him about their grief, deteriorating marriages, faltering faith, and job struggles, and these letters in reply are extraordinary.

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To a friend considering quitting his job, Nouwen wrote: “…my first inclination is to encourage you in your work which you have started. It seems you are in a spot which is hard, but which has many, many opportunities, and there are indeed people there who need your presence, your encouragement, your insights, and most of all, your deep religious commitment.

I have a feeling that in the future you will be called to other places and to other types of work, but it seems that a few year in this dessert might in fact be a good preparation for the more involved type of ministry.”

He goes on to say;

“Be sure to be very faithful to a regular prayer life, to spend a lot of time in reading and to stay in in good contact with friends whom you trust. I am sure after a while it will become clear where God is calling you, but my first response to your letter is that right now he calls you to be just where you are.”

This is the kind of advice we could all use when we are struggling with something; a reminder to pray, to read, to take some contemplative time, and to be willing to trust God that there is a plan in all of it.

I had to set this book aside for several days after I read it, as I contemplated some of my own struggles.  I have a mentor or two in my own life that I write to, and while their replies are more often by e-mail than snail mail, their advice is similar to Nouwen’s. We get so busy in our hectic lives, we forget to make time to pray, to listen to God.

This is one of the few books of actual letters that I’ve read, and I enjoyed it immensely. It has gotten me interested in reading more of Nouwen’s work.

Pen to Paper, Artist’s Handwritten Letters

No one would mistake one of my letters as a work of art. Consider the missive I began this morning to my friend Mary.

letter to Mary

We stopped caring a long time ago what our letters to each other looked like. If neat handwriting, composition, and proper grammar had been a big concern of ours, we likely would have written much fewer than the thousands of letters that passed between us in the last 30 years.

Neither one of us remembers exactly how or when we decided not to keep each other’s letters, but the sheer volume of them had a lot to do with it. Where would one store such treasures that numbered in the thousands?

I do have a stash of letters I have saved; letters from my mother, siblings, a few from my grandmother, and many from my own children. Would my brother Bill be surprised to discover that I kept the letters he wrote to me when I was 16?

Bill letter

I thought then, and still do today, that my brother’s handwriting reflected an artsy soul. A 2009 letter from my nephew Garrett seemed a precursor to the talent he has since developed as an artist.  I discovered a similarly decorated envelope among my mother’s things after her death. She, too, saved his letter.

Garrett letter

All together, my saved letters number fewer than what Mary and I might have written in our first ten years of letter-writing, but they still take up a good space in the trunk where I store them. Handwritten letters are indeed a treasure trove, as attested by the stash I’ve kept in a trunk and in books like this one.

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Pen to Paper: Artists’ Handwritten Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, edited by Mary Savig, is truly a work of art in its own right.
A collection of letters by artists from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, the book reveals how letter writing can be an artistic act, just as an artist puts pen to paper to craft a line in a drawing. Brief essays explore what can be learned from the handwriting of celebrated artists such as Mary Cassatt and  Maxfield Parrish. Each letter is accompanied by an archival image of the artist or a related artwork, with a full transcription at the back. (I needed those transcriptions as the penmanship was difficult to decipher at times.)

I was surprised to see a Dubuque, Iowa art professor listed in the book. Sister Mary Paulita (Helen) Kerrigan, was a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She devoted her professional life to painting and teaching, serving for 48 years as an art professor and artist-in-residence at Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa. In 1962, she left Iowa to spend the summer studying at the Art Students League of New York, sketching in the streets of Manhattan and painting in a studio. This letter was her thank-you letter to noted painter and sculptor Charles Alston.

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Her handwriting demonstrates the Palmer Method of penmanship, popular especially in Catholic schools in the United States throughout the 20th century. Many of us remember the repetitive drills that brought us our own fluency in similar cursive handwriting. My mother took some art classes at Clarke College before marrying my father. I wonder now if one of her instructors was Sister Mary Paulita.

You can see the same style of handwriting in my mother’s letters that I have saved.

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More than thirty years later, my mother’s written words can bring tears to my eyes. This letter, written in December 1985, was penned during a difficult period for my parents. My mother wasn’t sure she would make it to my mid-December college graduation. She didn’t explain until later why she and my father did not attend. But despite the difficulties they were facing, my mother attempted to look at the brighter side of things, to “be surprised how God works and feel very blessed.”

It is the words “I love you and am so proud of you always” that brings tears. I admit, at the time this letter was written, all I’d seen when I read it was “I might not be there.”  The “It’s a hard life isn’t it!” speaks volumes to me today, the hint that there was so much more to her absence than she could share in a letter.

This treasured letter makes me smile, too. “My heart is full of poetry, like Angie says.” The sister my mother mentions now writes poetry. “And maybe just how you feel, too, Mary?” Yes, oh yes. What a letter written more than 30 years ago can do for me today is make me feel as though my heart, too, is “full of poetry.”

What letter we might write today will be pulled out of a trunk 30 years from now to bring both tears and joy to the recipient?

This lovely book is just the beginning in a series of letter-writing and friendship related books we plan on reviewing in this blog during September. Many of the books reviewed this month and in the past will be included in a prize package drawing on September 18, which is National Women’s Friendship Day. Stay tuned for your chance to win this book and many others.    –Mary Potter Kenyon

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! Book Review

by Mary Jedlicka Humston

Warm, young bodies tightly snuggle in my lap, eyes directed at what I hold in my hands. Occasionally, they look at me, smiling in anticipation for a new experience or in glee at reliving a familiarity over and over and over. Either expression is joy-tinged, a balm to this grandmother’s heart. I open the book, read the first word, and a new world opens.

Reading to my grandchildren ranks high on my list of mountain-top experiences, a bliss that bonds us over words and cuddles. For my husband Jim, too. As former teachers, we understand firsthand the importance of reading, first to our own three children as they grew, and now to our five grandchildren, the oldest recently turning six-years-old.

Everyone reading this blog knows by now how much Mary and I love reading and writing. I mean, we even wrote a book Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink about how writing letters for almost 30 years linked our friendship in unbelievable ways. 

So, can you imagine my joy and surprise when Jim and I were in Michigan last week, watching our two granddaughters (three-and-a-half-years-old and three-months-old), and I came upon one of Zoey’s new picture books, titled Ten Thank-You Letters written and illustrated by Daniel Kirk? What? A children’s book centering on the joy of sending thank-yous to others? As Zoey and I read, I couldn’t wait to finish the book to see how it ended. I wasn’t disappointed.

Here is the synopsis of Ten Thank-You Letters provided by the publisher:
While Pig is trying to finish a thank-you note to his grandmother, his best friend Rabbit repeatedly interrupts to borrow supplies for a series of his own notes, thanking all the special people in their lives.

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I highly recommend this book to all lovers of letter writing. It opens up a window to children about how writing thank-yous to those who help us is rewarding not only to the writer but also to the recipient. And, the illustrations are fun and captivating.

Ten Thank-You Letters by David Kirk (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of the Penguin Group, 2014) would be an excellent gift. While the story is cute, the encouragement it gives to write others makes it a real treasure.
Hmmm. Wait a minute. I feel the need to send the author a thank-you for writing this wonderful children’s book. See ya!