I was a chubby kid. Borderline fat. From around age 3 until puberty, when I shed baby fat like a discarded chrysalis, my annual visits to the pediatrician recorded height in the 50th percentile, while weight rarely dipped much below the 75th percentile.
These stats are stated with great certainty, for my mother dutifully reported them as part of her twice weekly letters to her mother. And my grandmother, in turn, dutifully saved every single one of these letters. They recorded details about my growth, grades, playmates, transgressions, and more, often with parental analysis.
Now they’re mine, part of a trove of family materials that found their way to my garage over the years. I can relive my nursery school graduation (I banged a drum — loudly), my high school prom night (quintessential 70s black velvet tux with white ruffle shirt), and just about every milestone in between, chronicled week by week. My entire childhood detailed in several hundred letters. And if I can stand to read through the other daily meanderings of my parents lives (e.g. which tree or bush is being pruned this week, what was served for dinner Wednesday, September 20, 1967, or why last week’s church sermon was a snoozer), I can relive countless childhood moments, as well as get the meta view on them from my mother’s point of view.
This is not always pleasant stuff. The train trip I wanted to take up and down the SF peninsula when I was 10, I now understand my mother found frivolous and a waste of money. Far more disturbing are the early signs of her mental illness, evidenced by a growing obsession and paranoia with conservative politicians, the 1970s oil crisis, and all things religious. It took me awhile to get over this, and get over myself (and just squint at the embarrassing moments), and begin to systematically read and explore the world my mother shared with her parents.
What emerges from these weekly letters is a trip in time back to a simpler era — at least that’s how it feels in today’s light. The news mom related was gathered almost exclusively from the two papers she and my father read daily, the morning San Francisco Chronicle, and the afternoon Palo Alto Times. Pop culture came in small bites, as my parents watched an hour or less of TV a week, the ‘boob tube’ being primarily for the entertainment of the children. An afternoon spent listening to Broadway original cast show tunes, or a particularly good Saturday at the Met opera was noteworthy, as was a trip to the library and borrowing a much-anticipated book. If you can set aside Vietnam, the Arab Oil Embargo, student demonstrations and a seemingly endless procession of mass murderers and cults, the 60s and 70s had a lot going for them.
Reading my mother’s letters inspired me to start writing more myself. After years of almost exclusively electronic communications, I’ve started writing cards (and a few letters) again. It’s a small step, and while the pleasures of visiting a post office to buy stamps are few, people seem appreciative and actually more responsive when they’ve received a physical letter in the mailbox.
I wonder if anyone would be interested in knowing my current height and weight.