A Friendship in Letters

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The epistolary genre bursts with warmth. From love letters to modern e-epistles, personal correspondence may contain little complaints, funny stories, and big successes piled together with equal weight and candor. The reader of such a letter, after all, is generally a sympathetic listener, a person predisposed to find the complaints valid, the anecdotes amusing, and the triumphs worth applauding.

There are charming epistolary fiction books that make me want to write letters, like Anne of Windy Poplars (1936) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (2009), but occasionally we are granted the voyeuristic pleasure of reading a real letter between friends, as in Joan McClure’s wonderful 1969 letter to her college friend Aliceann, reprinted in The Brooklyn Rail (May 2011). A mother and graduate student, McClure writes about passing her linguistics exams, grouses about ironing her children’s clothing, and gossips about her neighbors with equal fervor and dry wit.

“I agree with you that housework is a total bore, and the only thing that has kept me going these past few years is my studies,” writes McClure to her friend, clearly a kindred spirit. The letter provides an honest, ungutted glimpse into the late 1960s, when an aspiring linguist felt the pressure to also be a perfect housekeeper and mother:

One day this week it was 90 degrees and [my neighbor] Maria got up at 3:30 a.m. and cleaned, and did three loads of wash and some ironing. By the time the kids got up, she was ready to go shopping. First she gave them baths and washed their hair. Then they went shopping all morning. After lunch she took an hour’s nap, which restored her for the evening’s activity: painting one wall in the playroom, cleaning the paneling, cooking a big meal for her husband…, putting the sprinkler out and watching her kids and mine because I had to teach that evening, and after the kids were in bed, washing the entire living room wall. You can imagine how much she does on a cool day.

Like tiny brushstrokes, the details of McClure’s letter reveal the portrait of her life now, distanced from her college days. It’s a privilege to read such a correspondence, to be privy to the unguarded intimacy between friends. “I’m going to have another party for my students this summer,” writes McClure toward the end of her long, tender missive. “How I wish you could come.”

Source: Brooklyn Rail

Image by Muffet, licensed under Creative Commons.

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