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HARD COPY

by Julia Sneden

The other day I received an exuberant email from my eleven-year-old granddaughter, detailing the results of a swim meet in which both she and her younger brother covered themselves with glory. The message was so full of her lively spirit that I found myself wanting to do more than just delete it, so I printed it out and posted it on the refrigerator. Itll be safe there until it gets greasy and/or crumply, at which point Ill probably feel foolish for having kept it, and will throw it away.

It started me thinking, however, about how ephemeral our email contacts are, especially those family messages that tend to be short and to the point. When our ancestors sat down to write letters, they didnt just communicate for the present: they created tangible witness to history.

This thought was occasioned by a bundle of letters I found in my mothers things after her death. They were neatly folded and tied with an old tape measure, the letters a real treasure trove dating to the mid-1800s. At that time Wisconsin was a pretty raw, new state. The letters are from and to my great grandparents, Charles Sheffield Kelsey and Lucretia Parsons Bacon Kelsey, and were saved by relatives who passed them along to the Kelsey children, who gave them to my mother, and thence to me.

The letters give a vivid glimpse into how different a womans life was, in the mid-nineteenth century, but they are also testimony to the universality of human relations. For instance, here are some bits of letters written by Lucretia and others. The first comes after a visit to her parents house in Perry, NY, before they started west: (the bold-face parenthetical remarks are mine)

Rochester, 6/21/1852:

We were safe at home a short time after we left Bergen. Winfield (9 mos. old) enjoyed the ride on the cars much better than the first one although it was so warm he got a little out of patience. I found the house looking as well as could be expected, all things considered, although I was persuaded that I had been out of it plenty long enough. And furthermore, when I tried to work, I found that the baby had been to Grandpas long enough. He squalled all the time he wasnt held and part of the time he was ... But he is getting considerably over it now.

In 1853, they left for Wisconsin. By then, they had another son, Otto, b. 11/11/1852.

Racine, Wisc. 9/3/1853:

Our household affairs are so much in a heap that I wont describe them. I believe we prosper in this strange land as well as could be expected. I thought when we landed I was not very tired, but in a week I found out that I was...I suppose it is not yet time to send hair (as in a lock of baby hair) as you have seen the childrens heads so lately... They improve, however strangely. Otto has got one corner of an upper tooth in sight. He hides behind every old string or paper he can find, besides getting awful wrathy at me for working so much, etc. etc. (I remember my own youngest, 9 months old in 1970, when we, too moved: He cried every afternoon from 4 to 7, for three or four months!)

(Lucretia to her parents)

Racine, Oct. 2, 1853

... Winfield is recovering from an attack of the croup. He feels pretty well most of the time but coughs some yet. He routed us and set us to work and after the doctor in a hurry Friday morning, but was better in a few hours. Otto has been rather out of order nearly ever since we have been here. I presume it is nothing more than teething. But with the two, I do an enormous amount of work...

(to her sister, Ann)

Racine, Jan 29, 1854

For the last month I have looked daily for some news from the sick and well folks of Perry, and if I could be sure where the fault was I think I should gratify myself by being quite wrathy. But in these days of Eire wars, and the other mail detentions, you stand a better chance than you otherwise would... (and ending the letter): If you havent written when you get this, sit down immediately and answer it or you will catch it. I dont know how, but I can vent my spite somehow, but just now I shall try my skill at going to bed and to sleep just as all the rest are doing.

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