Thursday, June 28, 2012

Letters from My Daughter

Louisa has been away at French camp since June 18, when we put her on a bus to Hackensack, a northern Minnesota town located about an hour south of Bemidji. She will be gone for a whole month and will earn high school credit through the Concordia Language Villages program, which is fantastique! She’s never been away from home that long, so it’s a new separation experience for her and for us – and a glimpse into what it will be like when she leaves for college in two years (gulp!).

The view from the beach at Louisa’s camp/photo credit Lac du Bois/Hackensack
I miss her – her smile, her musical voice, her wit, and her enthusiasm – but I know it’s important for her to have experiences that challenge her, without the safety net of parents offering advice or assistance. It’s the perfect opportunity for her, at age 16, to explore who she is and who she’s becoming.

And who she is, until mid-July, is Élodie – that’s her French name at camp.

Élodie avec ses amies de la cabine/photo credit Lac du Bois/Hackensack
One of the cool things about the camp is that it harkens back to the olden days (olden as in pre-Internet and pre-cell phone) in terms of communication. We cannot call, text or email her. This makes it easier, I think, for her and the other campers to fully involve themselves in the experience. Of course, we can write letters to her, and she can write to us. And we can view the camp blog that regularly features photos and brief explanations of what the campers are doing (a smart marketing move by Concordia that probably is also a concession to parents with helicopter tendencies).

A page from a story she wrote and illustrated for a class project
A few days after Louisa left home, we received two letters from her in one day. When I opened the mailbox and saw her familiar handwriting on the envelopes, I felt a rush of excitement I rarely if ever feel from opening an email or checking a text – and it brought back memories of other meaningful letters I’ve received in my life, letters that meant so much to me that I kept them (they are somewhere in the basement, and yes, Dad, the apple doesn’t ... you know the rest). These include weekly letters my mom faithfully wrote to me during my first year of college; notes from my dad accompanied by political cartoons and classified ads for French horn players; and a series of letters Steve wrote to me the summer after his first year in medical school, when he was traveling out west with some buddies and I was working in Mississippi.

Une lettre d’Élodie
It seems cliché to wax nostalgic about how unfortunate it is that no one writes letters anymore – but it’s really true. Letters reveal clues about a person’s personality and are much better at conveying feelings than a series of sentences typed on a keyboard. You can carry the letters in your pocket or hold them in your hand and know that your loved one made impressions on the same paper hours or days earlier with a pencil or pen – it’s a warmer connection, one that seems closer to the human heart than what can be shared through the wonders of gigabytes and pixels.

When I reread Louisa’s letters, I picture her in her cabin, or sitting on the dock, thinking about us, and it makes me feel closer to her. The things she chooses to mention – or not mention – give me insight into what she was thinking and doing at the time she wrote the letter. The letters remind me of the old serial stories that authors (like her namesake, Louisa May Alcott) used to write for newspapers. From the three letters we have received so far, I’ve learned that Élodie earned a bead for successfully taking on the challenge to speak only French on her first full day at camp; I have been introduced to the characters of her cabinmates and her two adored cabin counselors, the one who writes Harry Potter fan fiction and the one with a beautiful singing voice; and I have heard tales of delicious food and fun events, like a dance on the beach. I can hardly wait for the next installment, to see where the story leads!

In return, I’ve sent her letters chronicling the events she’s missed at home, from the unexpected (the tree falling down and crushing our playset in the aftermath of the flash flooding) to the ordinary (her dad’s play rehearsals, our dog Waffles being cute). 

I know from reading old family letters that the ordinary details are the ones that become meaningful years later simply because they provide a record of what was ordinary for one person, or for one generation. For example, from a letter my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, wrote to his mother, Rebecca, in the summer of 1915 on the back of a band concert program, I learned that my grandfather and great-uncle had recently returned from a visit to Rebecca’s home where they had enjoyed spending time with their cousin, Oliver; I also learned that G. Oliver and his wife, Islea, were feasting on the bounty of their garden that summer, which included peas, beans, potatoes, radishes, lettuce and onions.

Yes, life 100 years ago was different, but yes, in many important ways, it hasn’t changed much. Family connections feed us just as food does, and are so vital to our growth. We can’t always understand or appreciate this until we are separated from those we love.

A picture postcard my grandfather Ronald sent to his grandmother, Rebecca Riggs, in 1910.
If, years from now, Louisa’s children or grandchildren find these letters from camp that I’m saving, they might be amused to read about her adventures, or they may be astonished to discover that people really did write letters once, before the U.S. Postal Service dissolved and all communication became telepathic.

I can’t predict the future or do much to influence societal changes in communication. What I can do, though, for at least a few more weeks, is write to my daughter at camp and eagerly anticipate receiving letters in return.


  1. This is so fabulous, Joy! What a wonderful glimpse into Louisa's life at camp and your life at home, thinking about her. I'm inspired to write a real letter!!

  2. I enjoyed this a lot. I still have some letters that my then-little brothers wrote me in college, complete with the pictures they drew for me. Hopefully this will turn Louisa into a lifelong letter writer and you might get one or two from college ... or points beyond.

  3. Thanks, Jane! It's great that you still have those letters from your brothers. I hope Louisa continues to write letters, too!

    I laughed when I saw your comment on Facebook about your mom and carbon paper. That's the kind of thing I was thinking of that seems so ordinary to someone, but by another generation or two is not part of our culture anymore.

  4. You've inspired me. I just put Teresa on the plane to Paris for a month of study abroad. I hadn't thought about it before, but think I will write her a couple of letters. I love finding letters the girls wrote to me when they were younger.

  5. Thanks, Mary - I'm so glad to hear you liked the blog post! I hope Teresa has a wonderful time. It's Paris, so I'm sure she will!