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


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.

…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.


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.


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


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.


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.

pen to paer

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.

clarke college

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.

ten thank you letters
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!

A Trunk of Memories

How often do you find yourself going back in time?

I do every time I open the trunk I inherited from my mother.

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Inside are some of Mom’s scrapbooks, drawings my children and grandchildren made, a hat of my mother’s and one of David’s hats, my Dad’s old sweater vest, greeting cards, and letters…lots and lots of letters. I haven’t kept all the letters I’ve received, but I think I kept every single letter I’d ever gotten from my mother. I treasure those, occasionally re-reading them. If I’d kept every letter Mary had written me, there wouldn’t have been room in the trunk for anything else.

Have you ever considered that the letters you write might end up in a trunk somewhere, to be pulled out and read long after you are gone? That’s the incredible power of a handwritten letter.

A Pile of Memories

mary letters

I don’t know when, or why, Mary and I decided not to keep each other’s letters, or if we even discussed it. The decision may have been made for us around the time we reached 3000 letters between us. Because where exactly does one store 1500 letters?

We sometimes regretted that decision, especially when we began writing Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink. Those letters would have come in handy for remembering dates and details of our friendship.

Alas, the letters were gone. We would have to rely on our memories, Mary’s journals, and my daybooks.
That is why it was so exciting when Mary unearthed a stack of my letters a few months ago. She re-read them before handing them over to me.

While Mary had said all along that we’d seriously discussed writing a book together years ago, I honestly couldn’t remember having done so, beyond the casual “We should write a book together.” These letters, dated between 2001 to early 2003 proved Mary right.  I had, indeed, discussed writing a book with Mary, more than ten years before it became a reality~

mary book idea envelope mary book idea letter 2 mary book idea letter 30005 mary book idea letter 4





Yes, “our” book idea was hurriedly scrawled on the outside of an envelope before it was dropped into the mailbox enroute to Mary.


Seems fitting for a book on friendship and letter-writing, don’t you think?


The Trunk of Treasure

When my sister Joan recently asked if I had the computer disc my mother had saved a manuscript on, I begged her not to make me visit the trunk of sadness. The trunk of sadness. The chest of doom. Whatever I call it, I don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom since I inherited DSCF3332it from my mother in 2010 and filled it full of memorabilia. It’s a lovely quality chest, really, but packed to the brim with memoriDSCF3336es.

Memories like the postcards and valentine from my grandson Jacob, who passed away in 2013, the piece of paper my sisters wrote their phone numbers on so that I could call them at any time of day after my husband David died in 2012, a postcard I’d once sent to him, a birthday card from my penfriend Pam Pierre for my 52nd birthday. She knew it would be a difficult day as it was also the first anniversary of my mother’s death. Pam herself died a short time later.

In working on Mary & Me, I’d already dived into several boxes and totes as a way to jumpstart memories regarding the topics we were covering. When writing about my years raising young children, I unearthed the daybooks I’d kept during the bulk of that time.  marykjournals Writing on the topic of mothers, I read my Mom’s Memory Book and studied her old address book, searching for a mention of friends.

But I had somehow managed to avoid the trunk, knowing it inevitably made me cry to go through it. In recent weeks however, I’ve been diligently working on a power point for our first “Letter-Writing 101” workshop. One important point we make in the presentation is that letters and cards can be treasures. I know I treasure my mother’s old letters to her mother, letters she’d written as a young mother of ten children.I also saved all the letters my mother wrote me.

moms letters

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I certainly cherish those rare notes or letters from my father. It was one of those notes I was searching for to include in the power point, which was why I spent a few hours this week looking in the chest.

DSCF3326I did find a letter he’d written right after I left home for college, but not the note I was searching for; one he’d left on the table while I was in high-school, instructing me to put on the potatoes to boil and my brother John to feed and water the ducks. I’d wanted an example of how precious one short note like that can be.

Instead of crying, I found myself smiling as I unearthed memory after memory. A letter from a high-school teacher, Mr. A, admonishing me to thank my parents, do my best at whatever I do, follow my dreams, and always remember that I am special. DSCF3329

The tote full of sympathy cards and letters that I received after David’s death. I smiled as I noted how many return addresses were from recently acquired friends, when there was a distinct lack of friends in my life just five years ago, another topic we broach in our book.

sympathy cards and lettersDavid’s cards and letters he’d kept during his cancer treatment. If you don’t think a card or letter sent to someone going through cancer treatment can really make a difference in their life, consider that my husband asked to look through this box of cards five years after his cancer. He sat on the bed and pored through each and every message he’d received, and then he read the journal I’d kept during the period of caregiving. A card can make or break a day when we face tough times.

davids cardsI unearthed more jewels in the chest. I was delighted to discover an old “Women’s Household” magazine at the bottom of it (yes, I got to the bottom). Inside, page after page of penpal ads, something we don’t see in our news stand magazines anymore.

Womens household magazineMy digging revealed some real treasures in the form of old cards, random notes and movie stubs.

david card and noteDespite what it looks like, I don’t keep everything. Years ago Mary and I agreed to get rid of each others’ letters, a decision I sometimes regret, but considering we’d each have over 4500 letters to store, we’d definitely need another trunk.

Since there was more laughter and smiles than tears this time around, I think I can safely change the label of my storage space from “trunk of sadness” to that of “trunk of treasure.”

And yes, Joan, I found the computer disc.