Chronicling a Life: The Process of Publishing A Gift of Life

All her long life (1864-1958), my grandmother Rachel was always writing letters, mostly to her family — she had four children and nine grandchildren — when she was apart from them or some of them. It was always exciting, in my childhood, when one of these letters arrived. “Look — there’s a letter from Sweetheart!”

Chronicling a Life: The Process of Publishing A Gift of Life

Not Rachel. We never called her that. For us her only name was Sweetheart. Before I knew the ordinary meaning of the word, I knew it as her name. Even now, whenever I hear the word, I think of her. She acquired it on her wedding trip to far western Canada in 1892. Jim, their Chinese servant, told them that the Chinese word for sweetheart was “Summunchiee.” So that was what they called each other. Later she became Sweetheart and he became Chiee. That was what we all called them. So please forgive me, reader, if I go on in the same way.

Charlottesville, VA
Charlottesville, VA

After Sweetheart left us, there were great stacks of these letters on closet shelves in my mother’s house in Charlottesville, VA, and many sketchbooks full of watercolors.  For years Mother wanted to put together a selection of these for the larger family. Her sisters wanted  her to do it as well. But it seemed an enormous job, and she had her own work — she was an accomplished painter, etcher and lithographer. She asked me if I could do it, or help her. I was teaching in England, with a young family. But in 1996 I reached retirement age. My children were grown, and my wife and I came to Charlottesville to look after Mother, who was a robust 96.

Here was my chance to attack the letters. Many were hand-written in Sweetheart’s elegant if hasty hand; others done on a typewriter with carbons. Mother had marked in red some of the more colorful passages. There were also two thick notebooks of almost daily entries from the journal she kept on her wedding trip to Nanaimo, near Vancouver, B. C., camping in the wilderness, written from May 1892 to July 1893. She wrote at length, freely and personally, apparently with no audience in mind but herself and Chiee. Mother’s eldest sister had whitened out some of the more amorously intimate passages, as too private for public eyes. Still a good deal remained, with detailed accounts of landscapes, animals, men, adventures and misadventures.

She had also written, fairly recently, memories of her early childhood in Salem, MA, and accounts of apparently miraculous experiences when she was a young woman, convincing her that God was both real and active in human affairs. She wanted these passed on to her children, though of course she did not know how it would be done.

I read many pages copying passages which seemed to light up more than others.Eventually I photocopied about 180 pages, illustrated by watercolors, in about thirty copies which I sent round to the family.

But was that the end? Devoted as she was to her own family, Sweetheart also had a sense that her family was everybody. When she traveled she was always talking to people, with a lively personal interest which drew them out, even when she could not speak their language.. Strangers who saw the letters felt drawn into the family circle.

That is why  I came to feel she could speak to a much wider public, though still as “family.”

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