More than a week has passed, but my brain still swims in joy, appreciation, and disbelief.
It’s the understandable side effect of receiving a handwritten, personal letter from Carol Burnett earlier this month.
In it, she thanked me for sending I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree to her as a gift for her birthday.
It’s my book of Arizona stories and St. Louis flashbacks, which includes a chapter on The Carol Burnett Show and the positive impact the program had on our family in the 1970s.
There is one other significant and unexpected side effect, which Carol’s letter has prompted: a touch of grief.
If you follow my blog or have read any of my books, you know that my mother–Helen Johnson–was the consummate letter writer.
From the late 1980s (when Mom retired) until 2010, she sent me more than a thousand letters laced with love and wisdom.
Some of them appear in From Fertile Ground. It is a three-generation writer’s mosaic about love, loss, and grief. I wrote and published the book a few years after my mother died in 2013.
Helen didn’t quite make it to ninety, the milestone Carol Burnett transcended recently. She came up six months short.
So, when Carol’s letter arrived in the mail it cued a few pangs of sadness and a familiar pleasure. One that has been missing from my life … missing from all of our lives … for a long time. That is the personal, human, and lasting connection produced by a handwritten letter.
With all of this as background, yesterday I pulled out the large blue plastic container that holds all of my mother’s letters–sent to Tom, Nick, Kirk, and me over the years. I have them classified by year.
I began to leaf through her 2003 correspondence. That was the year she turned eighty, on July 26, 2003, to be precise. My sister Diane and I hosted a big party for Mom that summer in Geneva, Illinois.
Family and friends traveled from near and far to attend Helen Johnson’s birthday dinner at the Mill Race Inn. We celebrated her first eighty years. Afterwards, we crossed a bridge over the Fox River to continue the party at the Herrington Inn, where many of our guests were staying.
At one point, a gentleman playing violin walked through the lobby. He asked my mother if she would like him to play Waltzing Matilda, her favorite song. (Matilda was her middle name.)
Mom’s eyes sparkled with glee as he stood over her. He slid the bow across the strings, and I watched her spirit soar. In short order, she began to sing … “Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, you’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me.”
Ordinarily, my mother didn’t enjoy being the center of attention. But, looking back, that moment in a posh hotel on the banks of the Fox River surrounded by loved ones may have been the happiest and most spontaneous moment of Helen Matilda Ferrell Johnson’s life.
If you’ve been doing the math as you read this story, you know that my mother’s 100th birthday is approaching. It’s just two months away. One of the best ways I can celebrate the memories of her is to read her letters, which she mailed to me.
In this one from May 26, 2003–twenty years ago–she recounted for Nick (my older son) and me that she and my dad bought their first new car (a black, four-door Plymouth) in Texas in February 1951.
I must have just told her about Nick’s first car, a used Toyota Camry, which his mom and I had just helped him buy when he was nineteen.
Whether a letter comes from a legend of stage and screen like Carol Burnett or someone who lived a more ordinary (yet still remarkable) life like my extraordinary mother, the words and the movement of the pen on the physical page speak directly from one heart to another … far exceeding the temporary status of a text, email, or phone call.
That’s the context and beauty–the magic, really–of an authentic, handwritten letter.