Monday, September 26, 2011

The Letter

The Letter

Lighter than breath, its paper as brittle as the skin of an onion, the letter had been written in pencil, not the wisest choice for an artifact. But no doubt its authoress never dreamt it would one day be placed in the hands of her great niece, a person she never even knew existed.
My great aunt Prudence died long before I was born, leaving it up to her remaining family members to distill and elucidate her personality for future generations of MacDonald women, of which I am one. I have been told she was “difficult”. There have even been strong intimations that hers was the sort of “difficult” that leaned towards “meanness”. But who really knows for certain? Family translations of one’s true essence are often suspect at best.

I stare at the unfamiliar handwriting on this old letter, carefully removing the pages from their faded sheath, curious to catch but a glimpse of this mysterious aunt I never knew, and am immediately startled to see that it was written from Glasgow. Reading further, I find that she and her husband lived in that Scottish city in 1917-18, something of which I was totally unaware. She is writing to her sister, my Aunt Susie - whose fervent wish to be known as Susan was forever denied by her family - and I read of her frustration at the lack of adequate embroidery thread as well as her newly realized need for a raincoat...”everybody has one of them for it rains nearly every day”. She mentions both the cold and the poor soul that died on the boat over, wrapped up in a sheet and thrown overboard in a burial she clearly finds unsettling. She describes the Scottish beds that are so tall she has to climb up on a stool just to get into one saying, “If you ever fell out you would kill yourself!”. Although she writes that “everything here is so different” there is not a hint of homesickness hiding behind her pencilled words. She is on an adventure, far, far away from her Tennessee home, and she appears to be enjoying herself.

Her sister, my great Aunt Susie, is the aunt I remember, for it was her home we frequently visited when I was a little girl. Sadly, she passed away before I could chisel conversations in memory, but I can vividly recall her candy-coloured hyacinth gardens and the ever-present pound cake that sat underneath the glass dome on her kitchen counter. I remember her rooms were shady and smelled of lemons. Having no children of her own, I think she found me a bit fascinating, much in the same way an anthropologist marvels at a creature heretofore seen only in books. I think I made her laugh. Aunt Susie married the local postman and they lived, very happily by all accounts, in the same house for the rest of their lives. I never heard of them taking exotic holidays, in fact I never knew them to leave their little village at all.

When I finished Aunt Prudie’s letter from Scotland, I sat for a long time in thought. Knowing I have the blood of both these women dancing threw my veins makes me wonder if my own dichotomy betwixt wanderlust and nesting comes in part from these two sisters. For even when I am most content amongst my books, my teapots, and my gardens, I still feel a longing to drag my suitcase out from the closet, fill it up with sweaters and shawls, and make a wild dash to the airport, clutching my blue passport in my hot little hand. The homebody rests on one shoulder, the adventurer on the other, and both constantly whisper their wishes into my all too receptive ears. Are these two sisters partly to blame?

Once, when I was feebly attempting to articulate the astonishing connection I have felt to the Highlands of Scotland from the moment I first stepped onto that soil, a friend told me I was experiencing “cellular memory”. I have thought a lot about that ever since, especially since practically all of my ancestors, both maternal and paternal, came from that country.
How much of who we are is immersed in the unfathomable parts of our being, far out of reach of analysis or x-ray?
How many of the songs that my heart loves to sing were once sung by someone centuries ago?
How old am I, really?

Aunt Prudie as a young girl, perhaps wistful for another voyage?

Aunt Susie on her sofa with me.

Painting above: The Letter by Norman Hepple


  1. Beautiful! I believe in "cellular memory"

  2. I LOVE reading old family letters and documents, especially when I learn a little about the relationship between the letter writer and recipient, and about how life was lived way back when. Words, expressions people used, silly postcards, the price of sugar...

  3. What a beautiful story. I too think I must have celluar memory becuse from the moment my feet his the soil of Scotland I flet as if I was home. I have never felt like that in my life and I do not even feel like that where I am now. I have an yearning for Scotland and everytime I return there it is as if my soul has retourned to its roots.

  4. Hello Pamela

    What a beautiful story about your great Aunt Prudence. I can relate to you in what you say about been divided between a comfortable home and then the urgent desire to be at the airport travelling to somewhere new and exploring. I feel there is a definite connection to the land of our ancestors but what I do not understand is why can I also live in so many countrie and feel right at home too.

    A wonderful post thank you and happy travels
    Helen xx

  5. Oh this brings forth a gush of feelings; my family is from the most northern Orkney Islands with relatives still on Papa Westray; we swear the traits are passed down; it is a call....not frail, we are. The call is strong....Bless you for the family connections, keep them always...

  6. Pamela...I would say that we are as old as we want to be...for as long as we want....xv

  7. Proof positive that cellular memory = Celt .

  8. A lovely story Pamela. These old letters give such an insight into the past. I have several postcards written by my mother to her mother in the late 1920's - they give snippets of information that you wish to know more about. But of course it is all too late. Memories are such wonderful things.

  9. Hello Pamela:
    It is so often the case that unearthing an old keepsake does release all manner of ideas which have been deeply buried in the subconscious of the mind. Your old letter from Aunt Prudence certainly has set your mind racing and, surely, yes, one is the product of all these elements of ancestors, right back to the beginning of time.

    Whatever, it is a most glorious combination to be content at home and yet to have the joy of travelling. How lucky we are to have the choice and the opportunity which was denied to so many of our forebears.

  10. I'm the same way about staying home and travelling. When I'm home I yearn for foreign shores. While I'm there I'm thinking about what I'll do as soon as I'm home.

    I, too, felt the same way about Scotland. Every time I'm there, I exhale a great sigh as if to say, "I'm home again."

    I've had the "cellular memory" conversation several times with several different people. I believe in it, otherwise how do you explain that feeling of being home in a place you've never been. I've enjoyed visiting other countries but don't get that 'deep down heart-rending feeling' of "home at last".

    Lately, I've been hearing Ireland calling. Since I've never been but have many ancestors from that country, I wonder if 'the feeling' will happen there? Can't wait to find out.

    Great post!

  11. What a fascinating story. I definitely believe in cellular memory.

    I'm sure that Scotland has a pull all of its own. It's a very special place. I lived in Orkney for 12 years and the call to return is very strong indeed. One day...

  12. i love the concept of cellular memory and will try to learn more, now i have a 'name' for my affliction......longing for the english countryside. the moment i stepped on english soil a feeling of comfort overcame me and it has only deepened. i am here currently fulfilling my need.
    many of our ancestors are english and scottish, the latter of which i have not been to and long to. cannot wait to see what happens when i go there

  13. "If you look deeply in the the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. Your are the continuation of each of these people."

  14. How lovely to have found out something new about a member of your family. When our dad died, my sister and I found hundreds of letters from dad to mum and mum to dad, while he was away at war. We did read a couple but didn't really want to intrude on their privacy but, in those few letters we learnt quite a lot.
    .....and, I love your personal photographs Pamela. XXXX

  15. Oh Pamela, I love everything about this - the old paper, the memories, the mystery of the past. You always transport me with your magical words.
    It's all so romantic.

    The photographs are wonderful, and this cracked me up. "Family translations of one’s true essence are often suspect at best."
    xo isa

  16. Pamela, Cellular memory, I had not heard that before however it makes perfect sense to me now.

    This may also be why I adore certain biographies and autobiographies; gleaning so much of a life.

    The letter is wonderful thank you for sharing. You are young at heart however an old soul.

    Art by Karena

    Do come and enter my Giveaway from the Jose Esteves Collection at Interieurs!

  17. Lovely story and the photo of you with Aunt Susie is so precious - you haven't changed a bit!

    I have a huge box of letters from my mother - we wrote each week when I came to live in the USA - phoning was far too costly and of course no computers to e-mail. I'm so thankful for these letters, stacks of blue airmail envelopes full of family history, friendly everyday chat, and happenings from the homefront. I plan to re-read them often when I stop traveling so much!

    Always enjoy your stories Pamela - thanks for sharing.
    Hugs - Mary

  18. Yes, I think I also believe in cellular and racial memory. Although my Daddy's family has been in this country for eight generations, they came, originally, from Scotland via Ireland. Where I live now looks much like Scotland, also where my husband's family originated.
    Like seeks like it would seem.
    The tall bed...we use a ladder to get into our bed because the higher the bed, the warmer the night's sleep; warm air rises.
    Wanderlust and nesting...when I travel, I unpack and nest; do you? Some say that's strange but it seems normal to me -smile-.

  19. What a treasure to have and keep! I love reading old letter - I have several family ones but they are mostly very practical in nature about weather, shopping and train times - your Aunt's letter sounds full of social history. what lovely memories you have of your other Aunt too - I love your description of her house andd garden. You certainly have a little bit of each of them in you:)

  20. This was very beautiful Pamela! I've been buried in research of my ancestors for weeks now and would love to read a letter written by them. One thing I learned about my Scotch/Irish ancestors is this...
    There was a point in Ireland in which no surnames were used. When it was ordered that the people had to have a surname, this is how they chose one. You went to the oldest member of the family. He told you what the most common family name was such as Donald. If it was the son asking, it would then become McDonald as MC means "son of". If it was the grandson asking it would then become O'Donald as O' means grandson of.Isn't that fascinating? XO

  21. Scots here -- my mum was born in Kilmarnock (not far from Burns Cottage) -- and Dad's family owned a dairy farm in Stonehaven, Scotland. I'm named for my two grandmothers! We visited often when I was quite young -- and we loved to travel around the countryside. We come from seaside-loving people -- and come alive anytime we can be by the seashore!

  22. What a shame you weren't ever able to meet Aunt Prudence, I'm just sure you would have had her laughing as well, such a little happy pixie you looked! Love how your pants matched Aunt Susie's sofette...maybe that's what you both are giggling about!
    Lovely post...everyword a treasure, as much as your precious letter is.
    xo J~

  23. There are few things I love more than going through old family photos, letters and document. 'Cellular memory' - I love that.

  24. I love how you tell this family history, especially "candy colored hyacinth gardens." I can see both of these great aunts in you. I too have a bit of the homebody crossed with wanderlust.

  25. Enchanting! I love your photo with Aunt Susie and a sweet little doll nestled in the sofa. You look like you were both having some fun.

  26. Oh yes, it rains in Glasgow. My son is at university there, so I hear all about the rain.
    It is a very curious thing, this mingled wanderlust and rootedness. I feel it about Europe, from my deep roots in Scotland.

  27. write not stop...


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