Thoughts While Scanning Old Letters

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Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

Nearly a hundred years separate the technologies of fountain pens, printed stationery and U.S. mail delivery from today’s digital scanners, PDF files and cloud-based storage. But wider than that gap in time is the impassable canyon between the living experience of my aunt, whose letters I’m scanning, and my efforts nearly a century later to understand her world.

She started writing these letters during the first years of her novitiate when she began her journey to become a semi-cloistered Roman Catholic nun. My late father was still just a baby then, and in one of her earliest letters to her father, my grandfather, she mentions the evening the two of them rushed my father to the hospital after he fell out of his crib. The last of the letters I’ve scanned was written forty years ago, and she mentions my first job as a software developer.

I’ve scanned them all now: hundreds of them. Each scan required a tedious process of placing the first page of a letter face down on the scanner glass, doing a preview scan where I watch the grey scale image of her script take shape on the laptop screen, crop the scanned area, redoing the focused scan into a new PDF document, turning over the letter, and adding a scan of its other side to the document. Each of those steps is repeated for all the pages of that letter.

This took many hours, and it gave me time to reflect on the gulf between my aunt and I. I imagine her writing these letters alone in her cell, the small, Spartan room each nun would have had. No doubt there was complete silence as her fountain pen scratched out her thoughts. As I watched the CCD scanner bar illuminate the ink as it rolled along the underside of the page I considered the now quite forgotten act of letter writing, something that’s unknown today.

People probably write more today than in my aunt’s time, but now we write for the moment, hammering out a comment on an Instagram post or a tweet, hoping for a quick reply, or at least a “like.” Alone in her cell, turning the stationary over to continue her thoughts on the other side, my aunt traced out her inner words, knowing they wouldn’t be read by her loved one for many days. When your words hang for a while, lost in that indeterminate state between writing and reading, you choose your words carefully. You can’t take back what you’ve said once you dropped it in the post. You won’t be able to modulate your words if they start to get misconstrued, because you won’t be there to study your reader’s initial reaction. So in the silence, words were chosen carefully. She was writing letters she knew would be saved, and read again, but I doubt she considered they would be read by me, nearly a hundred years later. She could not have imagined the act of scanning.

Letter writing in the 1920s and 1930s was what the engineer in me sees as low bandwidth, low fidelity communication. She was separated from her former family by about 50 to 100 miles as the crow flies; while she could receive visitors on occasion, she rarely left the convent. Her first letters reveal her early on her life’s journey to become a nun. She still had clear memories of home ( a home she would not see again for more than 45 years), and as she wrote to her younger siblings she could still maintain the belief that she knew what they looked like. But as the years progressed, as her brothers and sisters turned from children to teens, and from teens to adults, I’m sure her certainty about their appearance wavered. So over the years, the letters she wrote grew less insightful about the everyday life of her readers, because that life was increasingly unfamiliar to her. Specific advice grew less common. General blessings and entreaties to take the sacraments increased, no doubt because she felt they had universal relevance.

Time, and her fealty to the path she had chosen, opened a divide between her and her family. Her mother died shortly after she took her final vows. Her siblings were coming into adulthood in the exuberance of the 1920s and the upheaval of the 1930s. She was following a path completely opposite theirs: away from the world, towards an enclosed community of prayer and service. Just as she could not have imagined her letters would one day be digitized into a stream of bits, I cannot imagine a life ruled by perpetual vows, a life of obedience, and submission to God’s will.

Her letters manifest a devout faith in prayer, and a belief, once far more common than today, that prayer could have tangible effects on our lives. I have one letter that’s quite startling. It was written by perhaps her closest friend, lamenting that she didn’t get to see her one last time before she left for the novitiate. What’s startling about it was her friends envy — she wished she had the same certainty about her life’s directions as my aunt did. She wished she too had the strength, and the fearlessness to . . . give her life away. To offer it up as a prayer.

Yes, there is the technological divide between my aunt’s life and mine. I see her blue-black ink coursing down the tip of a fountain pen, staining the threads of the stationary where it resides as a fixed mark of a letter within a word. Pen and ink and silence — these were the culmination of a thousand years refinement to the tools Dark Age monks used to transcribe ancient texts. My tool is the rolling sunburst of the scanner bar, bellowing light into the paper threads darkened by my aunt’s hand many years ago. I am a harvester of light, lifting the residue of her thoughts from a century’s slumber in the sheets, etching them into an electronic document that will never yellow and fade.

Our lives are more distant still. I knew her. I remember meeting her as a child, feeling somewhat uneasy in the unaccustomed silence that hovered in her convent. As a teenager and a young man, when she was an old woman, I saw her as an anachronism. That was the sixties and seventies, when all the threads binding people together were loosening, and we were dizzy amidst all the new freedoms. To me then she seemed ancient, her piety seemed seemed almost quaint, an illusion in need of protection from a world I was convinced I understood better than she did.

While scanning her letters I realized we’ve changed places. Here I am, scanning her letters with the latest technology, but even using those tools I’m still an old man doing a monk’s work of preserving texts for the future. Her letters were written in the bloom of her early adulthood, when, in contrast to my dread of freedom at that age, she chose a path of freedom through renunciation and sacrifice, and she remained faithful to her vows all the years of her life.

The scanning is done now. The residue of her thoughts have been lifted from her pages, and digitized into cloud documents, where they can be carried along with the tide of storage technology evolution. I can open each letter, and see the sharp, grey scale residue of her words again It seems wondrous, that her prayers and pleas to her parents and siblings can move me, nearly a hundred years later.

Is it all for nothing? My aunt left this earth many years ago, and everyone she wrote to is gone as well. She prayed, and she encouraged those she wrote to to partake of the sacraments. These yellowing letters have already been accounted for within the scheme of God’s measure. The personal issues she wrote about have long since been settled. So all that’s left are letters, precious enough to be saved by their recipient and passed on after their deaths, and precious enough to me to preserve them for readers as remote to me as I was to her.

In physics, there’s a principle called “entanglement” where particles that spring into existence together are forever joined as a single system, maintaining a consistent state no matter how far the particles are separated in space and time. When you measure an aspect of one particle in the system, its diffuse potential resolves as a particular specific value from a number of possibilities. Your act of measurement collapses the possibilities of the other member of the system, everywhere, even though it may have traveled to the ends of the universe. Einstein never accepted the existence of this, what he called “spooky action at a distance.” But it is real, there is no question. All rests on a foundation deeper than space and time.

I think of that when I consider her letters, shuffling in the burlap postal sacks during the days between her silent composition, and their delivery to her loved ones. She and her family were growing apart: her siblings embraced their freedom, and she had a starkly different determination to hurl herself into a life of obedience and prayer. They were all diverging in space, time, and in their natures as they developed in their individual ways — new differences arose even as a letter spent its week in transit. But each time a letter was opened, a bond was refreshed.

Our words entangle us. When I’m placing the letters on the glass and performing the mechanical process of scanning, I’m just a senseless automaton, a physical process just like the chemical process that yellows her letters. The complexity of the steps I take, and the sophistication of the technology I use, doesn’t make it any less mindless. But when I read her letters, whether I read the physical stationary in my hand, or the image of the scanned document on my monitor, a new thread is spun between our lives. The diffuse imagination I have of her condenses just a bit, and I’m able to anchor my thoughts of her in the reality of her words. Even though I know the arc of her life, and I know how her story ended I’m able to see inside her a bit, and glean how the world, and her family seemed to her.

By scanning her letters, I’m binding myself between her, the loved ones she wrote to, and some unknown descendants that will read her words and be drawn into an understanding of her life.

Retired software developer, husband, father. Student of history. Met Fan

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