The letters between Grampa Skean and me stopped so many years ago but I am still pondering letters, looking at the language, the way they end and the emotion and meanings still evident in those marks on paper.
In the 1970’s, I had written to my grandfather who lived in a small house in Port Burwell, Ontario, the only one he ever rented with electricity and running water. By this time I was living in Massachusetts with my American husband and my new son. I had welcomed the opportunity to restart life in a new country but was conflicted about leaving the past. My Canadian roots were my identity but neither the good nor the bad connections could be forgotten. I felt I needed to know more about where everyone had come from to converge on the tip of Lake Ontario where I was born. I asked Grampa to tell me about my ancestors. He willingly obliged, in only three letters, by providing the names and dates and circumstances of the origins of his and Gramma’s families. I think it gave him a goal and purpose to recall and pass on what he knew. He was nearing the end of his life and I may have been the only one to ask him for something that only he could provide. How a frail man in his 80’s with the most rudimentary education could remember all those people and dates of birth and death is still a question not answered. I suspect there may have been a family Bible to help him but I do not know.
His ancestry was mainly Dutch and Irish but the speech patterns of rural Appalachia can be detected in some of his writing and certainly in my memory of his speech. Even though he lived all his life in Ontario there was an antiquity in his expressions that comes from earlier generations of German, Irish and Dutch ancestors. For example, in writing of his Irish grandfather he states “he took up land from the Crown” and “he sent for his girlfriend down in Pensavaney to come to Canada to be his bride.” If someone came to visit, they were “down from” somewhere, as in “down from the West”. He states “there was nine children in my mother and father’s union”, conveying the idea that “union” was not just a marriage of love but a binding agreement, a contract between them.
His own union with Gramma Ethel would have been this type of binding that endured in a time when divorce was shameful, if not impractical. With so many children, he needed a wife and she needed a husband. I often wonder what caused their rift – they never talked to each other, not a word in all the years I knew them. Was it the sweet and gentle giant of a son who may not have been Skean’s, who looked to be a member of the Six Nations? Their relationship was never spoken of and his letters are scant in their mention of Ethel. He also did not list his own children – ten of them – names, birth dates or date of death. Only the ancestors seemed relevant to him.
By the time of his third and last letter, Grampa Skean had returned to the church, most likely for some contact with his rural community. Some of his sons had died, others were dying, his daughters were sporadic in their contact and Ethel was long dead. His writing hand became more rigid and hatch-like, sentences were shorter and self-pity finally made its appearance. He writes “but old Indian Chief don’t cry over it, your old Grampa got lots of friends” and he speaks of the Christmas and birthday cards he received from the church people. “Indian Chief” was the name he made up to entertain me when I was very little. He had many arrowheads from hoeing tobacco fields and I had no reason to doubt him.
He lists all the people who promised him letters but did not write, and recounted the month and year he last heard from those who did write. He is lonely and nearly alone. Being far away and a self-involved twenty-something, I did not write again before his death a few years later and I regret this very much.
In re-reading his letters, one sentence stands out, repeated in some form at the end of each letter, a trail of words into a loss of hope on his part: “When you come up again I will show you where they are all sleeping.”
Letters are one of the most personal ways of telling our stories. Somewhere there is someone who may have a letter from you. It may be all that is left of your story when you are sleeping.