I’m publishing a selection of letters written by my mother, a prolific letter writer who lived in the conservative town of Yakima, Washington all her life. In a 1977 letter she castigates Sen. Henry Jackson and Democrats in Congress for their lack of support for President Carter, and schools them on the history of the Panama Canal.
“Neither you nor the great media with its resources has bothered to challenge the propaganda of Ronald Reagan…”
“We strongly support President Carter in scolding the oil companies; it should have been done long ago.”
Sherman Alexie’s eulogy for his mother reads, “My mother was a dictionary. She was one of the last fluent speakers of our native language.” When she died the words died with her. He has one cassette tape of his mother and grandmother speaking together and singing a song.
My mother was maybe more like an encyclopedia. She collected the stories of old people on cassette tapes and in the 1970s she produced a public TV program on which she interviewed elders who lived in the Yakima Valley. I think some of those programs must be collected in the Yakima Valley Museum, but perhaps not. The words may have died with her.
After my mother died, I asked myself the question so many of us ask. Why didn’t I record her story? She told me stories of her life as we sat at the butcher-block table in our country kitchen drinking tea late at night. I remember the film the Lipton’s left on the white cup, but I remember little of what she told me. Why didn’t I just turn on the tape recorder? Was it because I didn’t want to imagine a world without her in it?
Now I wish I had a recording of my mother talking, saying anything, but although I have looked through my saved cassette recordings, I haven’t found one. She had an unusually low voice, a result of allergies, asthma and post-nasal drip. When she answered the phone, sometimes the caller thought it was a man talking. But she had been a singer in her youth and I imagine her voice as a young person to have been clear and high.
There was one time when I did record my mother’s voice. It was after my boyfriend, Mark, and I had driven across the country and back in 1976. She had lent us her car for the trip, a VW station wagon, which very nearly didn’t make it over the Rockies. It was a big sacrifice on her part, I realize now. The trip took a month. My relationship with Mark didn’t survive the trip, but I think we felt we had to put on a good face for Mom on our return. I recorded her asking questions of Mark about the trip. In the recording, Mark unleashed pent-up anger at her. His condescending answers tagged her as a bourgeois reformist liberal. I thought he was abusive. Later he wrote her an apology and she replied in a thoughtful six-page letter, he told me.
I tried to listen to the tape later and it just made me mad. I have a vague memory of throwing it away, thinking I couldn’t bear to listen again. But my memory is terrible, which gives me hope. Perhaps I only thought I trashed it. It could be saved somewhere in the cases of cassette tapes in the basement. I’m making my way through them and I’ve already listened to many. It takes time. You have to listen till the end, as something important may have been recorded there. I have listened to hours of nothing—musical performances that could have been opera very far away but translated to audience coughing and fidgeting.
Some of the tapes are ones my mother made, labeled in her perfect cursive. She recorded the Camp David Accords, signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978. She was sure the treaty, facilitated by President Jimmy Carter, signaled the end of Middle East discord. Sadat and Begin were both awarded the Nobel Peace prize. Three years later Sadat was assassinated. The tapes are imbued with my mother’s optimistic desire for world peace. I’ll probably never listen to them, but I haven’t been able to throw them away.
I have not yet found any tape with my mother’s voice, but there are cassettes I have yet to listen to and I think I remember where I stored them. I still have hope.
Back in 1980 gun control was a big issue. Politicians and celebrities were victims as well as less famous citizens. After John Lennon was shot I had to admit to my mother that I had bought a hand gun, the same type that killed John. She was distraught. What could I have been thinking? I was thinking as a radical socialist lesbian feminist I might have to defend myself. I learned how to shoot at local gun clubs. I put the gun in a drawer next to my bed, but began to worry that a visiting child might find it. What if someone accidentally got shot with my gun! I soon put the gun far away out of anyone’s reach. My thinking changed, but the scourge of gun violence did not. Except that Mom is writing here about handguns rather than now-popular semiautomatic weapons.
“We do have wild animals, but they are two-legged.”
I contend that bullets, bombs and mines are more to be deplored than garbage and stones (thrown by dissenters).
Paul Harvey pissed us off for half a century. During my childhood the right-wing commentator was on the radio twice a day on weekdays and at noon on Saturdays railing against welfare cheats and championing American individualism. A close friend of Sen Joe McCarthy, the Rev Billy Graham and J. Edgar Hoover, he supported Cold War campaigns against communists and opposed social programs as socialist. Advertisers loved Harvey as he could make any ad sound like news. Salon Magazine called him the “finest huckster ever to roam the airwaves.”
Millions of Americans who, like us, got their news and information from the radio, were subjected to his diatribes. Beginning in 1952, Harvey kept talking right up till his death at 90 in 2009. He always left us fuming.
My mother got so mad at his attack on war protesters that she engaged her superpower—she wrote a letter.
“What kind of people are we that we allow an immoral, useless war to continue when a child of six can point out that the emperor has no clothes?”
Sadly, the box of letters, saved in my brother’s barn, contained none of my mother’s letters from the turbulent 1960s. Most are from the 1970s. Flo writes here about being moved to tears in a state of depression and despair. She felt the burden of American foreign policy personally and would often call me, weeping for its victims. She anguished about her children and a whole generation of young people losing faith in democracy.
My mother wrote letters. For her, letters were a means of communication, an art form, a way to express herself, and throughout her life one of the few ways an ordinary woman could make her views known.
Born in 1913, Florence Wick was a reader from the age of four. Like all grade school students at that time, she studied the Palmer Method, and she developed strikingly beautiful handwriting. An album made by a family friend contains letters she wrote at age six.
Besides regular handwritten correspondence to friends and relatives, Flo wrote letters to Congressional representatives, media people and writers commenting on their stories, and hundreds of letters to the editor of our local paper in Yakima, Washington. She’d had lots of practice. Taking shorthand and composing and typing letters was her job as a secretary.
I had thought all of her letters were lost, but while going through files helping my brother Don move to Canada we discovered a box containing copies of some of her letters. The earliest is a letter to the editor condemning bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, written in 1949. The last, disparaging toxic pesticides, she wrote a couple of months before her death on August 9, 1983. Most of the letters are from the 1970s. They deal with government policy; environmentalism; and the rights of women, minorities, prisoners and seniors. Many letters eloquently protest the war in Vietnam and its casualties.
My mother changed the course of her own life through letters. She told me that when she applied to work for the Red Cross during World War II, a college degree was a basic requirement. She had only a high school education but she made her case in a letter and was accepted. I’ve often wished I had a copy of that letter. Flo served in the Red Cross as a “donut gal” in Italy, France and Germany during and after the war, earning a bronze star. Although only two of her letters from Europe survive, the letters she wrote to her mother (her father had died in 1938) were passed on to a local newspaper reporter who turned them into reports from the front lines. Along with photos and mementos, these newspaper clippings were pasted into a huge album my mother made upon her return from Europe. The war had changed her. She had lost her fiancé to a land mine in 1944 and when she returned home it seemed Americans’ concerns had focused more on the dearth of gasoline and nylon stockings than the deaths of millions. People didn’t want to talk about the war. Making the giant album served as an antidote to her depression.
What strikes me about the letters is their universality and timelessness. I remember her phoning me to read me a letter she had written about war. In it she proposed that the government employ a department of peace instead of a department of war. “It’s great,” I said. “Send it!” “I did,” she said. “Twenty years ago.” Her letters illuminate conversations of her time, and they also instruct us now in the 21st century. I think they deserve to be read and I’ve scanned some of the most compelling to publish here.
1949: Re-read Emma Lazarus’ inscription
Attacks on immigrants are a common feature of American history. Flo was proud of her parents, immigrants from Sweden and Norway, and she wrote many letters with this theme.