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August 24, 2011


Margaret Maron

Images-2 Although my mother always swore that I was completely potty-trained well before my second birthday, some people declare that I’m an anal-retentive when it comes to my file cabinets.

Before I became a fulltime writer, my favorite jobs were secretarial. I didn’t know shorthand, but I was a fast and accurate typist; and my bosses soon learned that instead of dictating very...verrrrry.... slowwwwwly....., it was more efficient to tell me what they wanted to say, let me compose the letter, then make their minor corrections and have me retype it.  I loved opening and sorting mail (authorized snooping!) and I adored filing. Bringing order to chaos.   
No wonder the mystery form so appealed to me when I did begin writing. In fact, my first novel, One Coffee With (now an eBook!), was loosely based on my experience as the secretary to the chair of the art department at a NYC college.

COVER01Coffee_FinalI ordered my very first file cabinet from a Sears, Roebuck catalog soon after we moved back to the States.  Four drawers, steel construction, $39 plus tax.  I emptied out all the cardboard boxes 320988-M labeled “Bank Records,” “Taxes,” and “Guarantees and Instructions” and spent a happy week sorting them into manila folders.  One drawer was devoted to letters from friends.  And because I had friends and relatives strewn up and down the East Coast, I began saving carbons of my letters to them so I could keep it straight as to whom I’d written about what and not repeat myself.  As long as I was typing anyhow, a carbon copy was no extra trouble.  (Some of you may never have seen carbon paper nor used a manual typewriter.  Get your grandmother to describe them to you.)  My letters became my journals. Images-3

Three years later, I had begun to write and sell short stories.  Because I kept all my submissions and rejections, I had to buy a second file cabinet.

A few years after that, I needed a third. I had become vice-president and then president Sin of Sisters in Crime during its formative, contentious period. I believed in openness and paper trails and I kept copies of everything.  Same when I joined the MWA national board in another contentious period.  My personal detailed records helped clean up a rather messy situation that would have dragged out longer without them. 

After 28 novels and 5 or 6 dozen short stories, my current office has 31 file drawers.  I’m hoping they will see me out.  All the SinC files have gone to the SinC archives at Douglass College in New Jersey and several feet of files—rough drafts, speeches, and business correspondence—have gone to UNC-Greensboro.  Lots of empty drawer space, right?

VdOtiZ Not really.  Our son is a father himself now, yet I still have the instructions for putting the training wheels on his first bike. I keep telling myself I need to start culling, but he was so cute on that little bike and my mechanically-challenged husband was pretty cute, too, when he turned the air blue trying to fix a broken chain. When our first video camera malfunctioned two weeks before the warranty expired,  I produced the warranty and saved us the cost of a new one.

I now have nine drawers of letters: four for mystery writers, two for NC writers, three for friends and family who don’t fall into the first two categories.  I have witty, funny friends and some of the friendships go back to childhood. It’s impossible to keep all their eMails but if an interesting or amusing thread pops up, I admit that I’ll print it out and pop it into the appropriate folder.

 When friends were celebrating their 25th anniversary several years ago, I dug out the letter the wife had sent me around the time of their fifth anniversary.  She was so much in love and so sure that the marriage was going to last forever.  I sent the original to their children who were putting together an album for them. Another twenty-five years later, she still gets tears in her eyes when she tells people about seeing that letter again for the first time.

Next to a good mystery novel, my favorite books are letters, but I have to wonder if we’re nearing the end of that literary form.  Back in the age of pen and ink, so many wonderful letters were tossed into the nearest wastebasket or used to Images-5
start a fire or thrown out in ignorance by the heirs.  In our electronic age, what will survive to take their place?  Will a biographer offer a telephone bill with a date circled to indicate that this was a conversation between two important world leaders?  Will 140-letter tweets replace the long letters Flannery O’Connor or Edna Millay or Raymond Chandler wrote?

Will we care?

If you could retrieve one single letter from the past, yours or some historical figure’s, which would it be?


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If I could retrieve one single letter from the past? Wow, that's a tall order. Could I select TEN?

Any letter that my dad ever wrote Mom would do (I have none, nor do any of my siblings, that I'm aware of).

Margaret, your filophilia makes me feel sooooo much better. I have a two-drawer cabinet and a two-drawer lateral-file cabinet of notes, manuscripts, and letters, and, yes, a few boxes of tax records that are stored elsewhere; but I don't know of a single well-meaning friend who hasn't said, 'Maybe you could throw away whatever's in those files?' when I complain of too much furniture for a quite small apartment.

My dad used to write notes to us kids, jokes, funny sayings etc. I kept a few and cherish them. If I could find and keep one thing he wrote it would be the journal he kept notes in during the 6 months my brother was terminal. I still remember his last entry. "We lost Pat today."

I miss them both.

I have one file box and it gets lighter every time I cull through it. Since I have recently started paying a couple of my bills online, it will get lighter. In Canada we have to keep financial information regarding taxes for 7 years. I can't wait for two years from now when I can shred all the info on the condo I sold 5 years ago and get the last of the taint of it out of my life.

I do have in my one box of papers, very special cards I have been given, a folder of family letters and friend letters.

I have saved most of my letters from family and my old friends. And I have carried on a correspondence with one of my high school boy friends since he ws drafted during the Vietnam war.

I have had a wonderful correspondence with my early-childhood babysitter. Except for the mandatory winters in Florida she lives in the same house by the brook in Billerica, Massachusetts. We email now and attach photos. I love having her as a friend, still. Actually we weren't friends while I lived up the road in my great-grandmother's cottage, but we became friends when I was an adult.

Step wrote me letters every day we were apart, including the years I was away at college after we married. It was too far to commute daily, so we wrote and talked on the phone - every day. I would drive home on the weekends. I always dreaded Monday mornings when I would have to start the 2 1/2 hour trip down Highway 395 and over Cajon Pass toward school. Knowing that there would be a letter from Step waiting for me at the dorm made the drive and the week away from him bearable. We have boxes and boxes of those letters.

He still has the letters his grandmother wrote while he was away at boarding school. He has lots of visible memories. He has his Smokey Bear hat from oy scouts. He has the linen handkerchief that he used as a toy parachute when he was a little boy - with the corners still tied in knots. His mother gave me the biscuit cutter he made when he was 11. It's my favorite. I enjoy being part of his family, the part that treasures family memories.

I have saved the letters my Grandfather Jean wrote to me as an adult. I wish I had the letters of my childhood, but my mother threw those away. I don't know why. She threw many of my things out and everything once when I was away from home. So these letters from my grandfather are wonderful to have. I reread them now and then, because they tell me so much and they keep my mother's family and our family history alive for me despite my disaffection and separation from my parents.

Simple things I love in Grandpa Jean's letters, like his telling me about the visit he paid to my great-grandaunt on the reserve up on Oka. He describes the last time he saw her before heading back to Salem, "She was old and wrinkled. She was dark and bright. She sat in her rocking chair on the porch. She looked at me, and she rocked, and she waved good-bye."

I saved all my husband's letters to me while we were "courting"...I wish I had all my grandmother's to me. During this cancer thing, I've saved every card and letter everyone has written me.

I am envious of your filophilia...is it catching? Like if I sat next to you for awhile, would I come down with a severe case of it? Filing has always been an anathema to me. But not in the ecclesiastical sense...

My dad passed away a year and a half ago and now my little brother is away at Marine bootcamp in Parris Island. If I could find any letter, I would look for the ones my dad and I used to write back and forth to my brother when my mom was pregnant with him... Ooh Rah

I hear you about the filing cabinets. I have my grandmother's, my mother's, one I bought on sale from a place where I worked, and one I actually bought new. Of course, they're all full, and if I add any more, the floor may collapse.

I have saved in a trunk in the attic every letter I received during the first 20+ years of my life, and that includes a wacky telegram my father sent me when I was about eight, that makes sense only if you watched The Real McCoy in those days. The person at Western Union must have thought he was crazy.

Only one letter from the past? Well, if Eleanor of Aquitaine didn't leave any, I'll request one from Abigail Adams to her husband (she was the brains of the operation, wasn't she?).

Okay, you all are making me more normal for wanting to hang onto these letters. Reine, I'm so sorry your mother threw away so much of the written record of your childhood. Lovely that Step's family has so embraced you.
Gaylin, does that heart-wrenching journal still exist in the family? Could you borrow it and copy?
Elizabeth, writing to your unborn brother - that's so dear.
Sheila, Lora and Loraine- sisters!

Margaret, if you were married to my husband, you'd have to live in a---well, come to think of it we bought this house because it has a library in the basement, so that won't work in this context. Anyway, my husband has saved every financial record since were were married 34 years ago. My laundry room is jammed with file cabinets.

My aunt has willed to me her grandmother's diaries (living on a farm, no electricity or central heat, her husband dying of drink---fascinating) and her mother's recipe box. I look forward to receiving them both.

I've saved all the letters my husband used to write me from the road. He traveled six months of the year for the first 15 years of our now nearly 30-year marriage, and wrote great letters. Many of them started out, "I'm sitting at McDonald's, having an ice cream cone." Or a coffee--he dearly loved Mickey D's coffee.

And I have boxes of correspondence, including every Christmas card anyone ever sent me, which is ridiculous. Must clear those out.

Reine, my mother threw out all my childhood stuff, too, when she moved out of our old house to remarry the first time. I was so angry that she hadn't asked me first! But maybe she read some of my diary entries, many having to do with my relationship with her. Oops.

I wish I still had her correspondence with my two aunts who spent much of my childhood in foreign countries, and another aunt who lived in Hawaii right around the time it became a state. There was no good way to reach one another back then, except for air mail letters on translucent onionskin paper, closely written on both sides, including around the margins. I loved reading them, and trying to parse out which direction Aunt Phyllis, or Aunt Bobbie, or Aunt Rosie meant the reader to go next.

Aunt Rosie lived in Argentina for five years in the early 60's, in very primitive conditions, and my two cousins had to ride horses to their school, and ford a river to get there. They got sent to a boarding school in Arizona, though, after too much truancy. Seems they were supposed to come back home for lunch, and instead they took off on horseback adventures, instead.

Aunt Bobbie was almost a nun, but came home right before taking her final vows to recover from an illness. Grandma sent her to the store, where she ran into a boy from her grade school, home from working overseas in the CIA. He whisked her off her feet, she quit the convent, got married, and went with him to Dakar, where he was the CIA station chief. Her letters were fascinating, too. She witnessed a coup there from the roof of the embassy.

Mother doesn't like old stuff. I'm lucky she hasn't ditched me yet!

In honor of my pastoral friends, I would like to get the originals of all those letters Paul wrote to the Romans, et al.

One thing I am happy my husband kept: the kids' letters to Santa. Sniff.

I have an original letter than my grandfather wrote somewhere from France to my grandmother just a few days before the armistice of WW 1 in 1918. It is handwritten,of course, and he ends it with the comment that it is Sunday and he didn't go to church because he had the opportunity to take a hot bath. I think God probably understood.

Awww, Kathy!
Nancy, my husband saves financial records forever. I think he has every cancelled check we ever wrote. When I tell him the IRA only requires 7 years, he says "That's what attics are for." Ours is well-insulated with boxes of financial records.
Wow, Karen! What a cool family you had.

I would love to have any one of the letters my dad wrote to me when I was away at college. I was the only one in the dorm who received letters from her father. Now that I think of it, I just may have some(all?) of those letters somewhere in the pile of boxes that I never unpacked from my last move 22 years ago (and we won't even GO there, okay? I'm SURE I still need most of those things; honest! I really mean it!)

I got so envious reading about your file cabinets, Margaret! I love the idea of organizing things. I used to be good at it but serious back problems have made it so difficult for me to be able to sit for very long to do anything, including going through papers. I have boxes and boxes of papers at home to organize, and my file cabinets are spilling over. I save my energy for organizing myself at my job.

My mother saved/saves everything ever sent to her and my father. Her closets are stuffed with ephemera, letters, photos, etc stored in boxes, trunks and plastic storage bins. Last fall my daughter started a project of trying to make sense of this archive. She got as far as separating it into categories, throwing away 50 plus years of get well cards, birthday cards, and anniversary cards which only contained a signature and no personal message. She threw away lots of other stuff to, but having trained as an archivist she recognizes what is important. Getting my mother to agree to this pruning was a different story. After making the initial sort she had to stop the project due to other commitments.

There are probably ten large plastic storage bins of photos. Just in the past two weeks we've started sorting the photos into piles according to the decade they were taken. The other pile we are making is for the local historical society's archive with subjects, landscapes, or events of local interest. We've barely made a dent in the bins. I can only do this for around two hours at a time before I have to quit because I can't stand to do it anymore.

Eventually when finish this second sort we'll have to actually put the decades in year order, buy archival photo storage boxes and archival tissue to store the photos. This doesn't even count scanning important family photos and letters into digital form for a record to be shared with all members of the family.

I have to say I really enjoyed reading the letters I wrote home from college. I can't believe some of the stuff (read crap) I talked about in my letters. I don't even remember some of these things.

I recently was cleaning out a closet and came across a bin that had letters in it from my nieces and a few friends. Handwritten letters - back before email and Facebook. I had been very good about sorting the letters by the person who had sent it to me. Instead of getting rid of the letters, I returned them to the writer. The latest of the letters was probably 1998, several of them written when the nieces were in high school. The girls loved getting the letters and shared them with their spouses and children.

I am jealous of all of you whose families included letter-writers! I had the awe-inspiring experience, about a decade ago, of seeing a bunch of Charles Darwin's correspondence, including a famous (to Darwin geeks) letter he wrote to his wife with instructions about what to do with his work on natural selection in the event of his early death. And, because paper was scarce at the time, I also got to see scraps of manuscript and letters kept in lieu of autographs, and even one that was turned over to the kids to use for their math homework (adding fractions, in fact).

Historical collections, whether in museums or attics or file cabinets, are literally priceless. We never know when a trail of correspondence, or an old insect pin, or that linen handkerchief will unlock some mystery we could never dream of when we put those artifacts aside to keep.

I have many of the personal letters from friends. As this is the electronic age, all of the emails about the births of the Princesses are converted to PDF and on a cd. The Emails from my friend Dave, currently on his second year in Afghanistan as a contractor, get converted to paper and filed.

I wish I had the letters my uncle sent home from when he was an advisor with the US Army in French Indo-China. It was the late 1950's and my grandmother had to find an atlas to find where her little boy was. No one had heard of Saigon yet.

When my father died, the basement of papers went. For a moment it was interesting to read menus from long ago trips, see his prom picture and dance invitations from college, to see the minutes from 20 plus years of various board meetings. Some of the papers went to museums and archives. Most went to the recycler. The elementary school reported a tripling of their monthly payment from the recycling bin that month.

One historic letter? Maybe the two pager on Executive Mansion stationary dated November 19, 1863. It is a simple ten sentence piece written in pencil. It starts, "Four score and seven years ago..." Its present owner is not likely to part with it.

My mother would tell you to start tossing now. While she files everything neatly, when the toaster dies, its file goes with it. She was stuck with the job of not only cleaning out the several hundred pounds of paper in our house, but the files of the law office. That was more than a ton of paper to be shredded after the clients had the option of picking up their papers.

My father died from a sudden heart attack while in line at a fast food restaurant. I have a wonderful letter from one of the patrons that day describing what happened. I take it out every now and then and re-read it.

Reine! I have friends in Billerica! LOL! My mom & dad had been stationed at Ottis, and friends stayed up there.

I would love to have my brother's journal from when he was waiting for the lung transplant, but the b*tch probably threw it away when her boyfriend moved in. I will have to take comfort in some of his little toys that my dad rescued from the garbage, and the song that a friend wrote that was based on David's thoughts about his pending death.

I am lucky in that my grandfather was a collector. We had to have three days of different auctions to clear out the house, but oh, the wonderful memories that we found and kept. He, or his father, would clip articles or poems from the newspaper and paste them into an unused book. Also found his journal from before and during his courtship of my grandma.

I am also glad that I was able to locate a copy of the poem that my grandmother wrote upon her dad's (my great-grandfather) death. Mom couldn't find her copy, but a copy was just found in my great-aunts papers when she died the other month. And my cousin, luckily for him, didn't burn it with other stuff. Sigh.

I bow down to you organized people.

...Oh, just remembered. One of the things that my cousin was burning was my great-aunts old checks. She kept EVERY one that she ever wrote, back when she first got checks. Holy moly....I still cant figure out where she kept them in her little house. She was 93 when she died...

Debby, those old checks are a cultural history. $2.27 for an electric bill. $4.80 for a phone bill.
Nancy Clark, what a good idea. Maybe I should send all my friends' letters back to them, too.
Alan and Peach, it's taken my brother and me 10 years to sort through the 2 large Tupperware bins of my mother's papers. We went through another stack every time he visited and it was "Oh, I'd forgotten that" and "Hmmm. Wonder that THAT was about?"

As you know, dear Margaret, I am totally the opposite of you in these regards, but I'm so glad you exist to do what you do!

Do you ever dream of file cabinets?

I wish I had your love of organizing. I love organization, but not the actual organizing part. I brought home a file cabinet that was being discarded at work and put our existing files into it. Since then, everything is piled on top.


My mother has the letters my father wrote her while he was in the Navy in WWII. I'd like to have those someday.

Oh, Margaret, I love this blog, love this question. I am a joke among my friends for my filing system, my packrattedness, my endless boxes labeled Letters from my Friends.

I have three love letters that are dear to my heart, written by men who were in their last year of life. So funny, so generous, so eloquent, each one.

I never knew my father, as he died when I was one, but thanks to my archive-minded sister, I have his correspondence with my mother during WWII. Priceless.

I'd love to have the Christmas card my mom send my dad when he worked in Alaska during WWII -- when he came back, they married, and then there was me . .

We bought a t-shirt for a teaching colleague "Is anal-retentive hyphenated?"
I'm only semi-organized myself, de-cluttering occasionally for health and sanity, but I did learn to be very organized about grading student papers. Although when I used a calculator, if I couldn't remember if I'd entered a grade, instead of doing the whole stack over, I'd just add it in again. No one ever complained . .
If I need a particular book, I'm more likely to find it at the library than on my random shelves.
I might want to call back the reference letter I wrote for one of our substitutes, in which I didn't discover that I had misspelled rapport until after I send it. I stopped worrying about it, though, after I heard some less-wonderful stuff about him; if the misspelling kept him from a teaching position, it might have been one of those non-coincidences . . .

Oh, Nancy C, what a great story.

What a wonderful blog! I'm a major letter writer and reader, and had zillions of pen pals as a young teen. (I also, inadvisedly, had a prison pen pal for a couple of years. Illuminating. )

The letters I'd retrieve are the notes my best friend Kelli and I wrote to each other every night in junior high. We talked on the phone until our parents made us get off, then we'd write long notes on notebook paper and fold them into special shapes to deliver to each other the next morning. I had a giant paper bag full of them for years, but lost them in some move.

I also have five boxes of my grandmother's letters, to her and from her, some dating back to 1920. They're an astonishing history--mothers writing to each other across a couple of counties to talk about keeping the children in and how hot it is and too bad they can't go swimming or to the movies, but they can't because of "the polio." They're also sad in a way. I find I can't take much of them at a time.

Karen, I feel a certain connection with you - a kinship of understanding.

Debby, you have friends in Billerica? I've never met anyone else who ever knew anyone from there before. And you actually stayed there? Wow! Don't tell me someone commuted from Billerica to Falmouth? You couldn't do that today. It would take hours with all the Cape and Islands traffic. Might as well commute to Atlanta!

Better than being an archivist yourself, Harley, is to have a sister who is. And my Nancy P. knows I started saving all the SinC stuff when I was her VP because I quickly understood that she was not!

Those of you who have WWII letters you don't really want to keep but hate to toss, do query your local historical society, library or state archives. A lot of these places would not only be thrilled to have the letters, they might even give you a tax deduction. I was so glad to be given access to these when I was writing a dramatic history of our county. Such letters have the homely details official histories leave out.

Margaret, thank you for that comment on saving donating WWII correspondence. Through one of my aunts I've recently inherited a box of family letters that would include that time period. I haven't read them yet, but I am more motivated to do so now that I've read your post today. Thank you.

Reine. Yep. I think it was more that after his service, they moved there. And yes, I visited often. My 'uncle' was a cop until a belligerent guy slammed his car door into my uncle's leg, thus shattering it and ending his career. And my 'cousin' got married at the House of the Seven Gables (fiance' was divorced catholic). Sigh.

Hmmm....I might have to track them down...

And my true cousin, the pyromaniac, is a nimrod. He has no idea the history that he is destroying, and doesn't care. My mom had to beg him to not trash the framed quilt square that I had made for my great-aunt...the square that is an exact replica to the one of the kidney foundations Organ Donor Quilt, and the Gift of Life (Pennsylvania) quilt. Sigh. He did find it, and is holding it until we get up there Labor Day weekend.

Margaret, the last time I was at my mom's I looked for my dad's journal and couldn't find it. My mom is an anti-hoarder so unfortunately it is probably gone.

When I was in high school my mom would often write limericks and put them in our lunches, I sure wish I had kept those! My friends thought they were terrific, my mom's limericks were often rather raunchy, making her the cool mom.

My family was not a family that wrote much. Today, I wish I had saved the postcards from my parents' many trips. My mom did leave me things-dust catchers that I simply can't get rid of. Down sizing has not changed my hanging on to those important little things.

I have my baby bracelet, the kind with your family name spelled out with little beads. It has a tiny medal of Mary attached. I don't know how this survived the onslaught. Maybe because I stored it in a medicine vial? Is there a saint for that? À la the Saint Anthony prayer? "Something is lost. It cannot be found. Please St. Anthony look around." Like that? Sister Heidi, my old friend, where are you when I need these important questions answered?

My husband and I "met" online; we've both kept electronic files of all the correspondence we exchanged before we moved on to phone calls and, finally, a real date. Since we were living 90 miles apart at that time, we wrote to each other a lot before we finally moved in together. I really do treasure those e-mails.

With almost all of my correspondence online these days, I back up my e-mail files on a regular basis so I can keep a record of what's been sent and received. No filing cabinets needed; no clutter.

Surely there's someone else reading this blog who also eschews paper....

Lynn, I think you're probably the wave of the future in a paperless society. Just hope you back your correspondence up on a jump drive. Or is everything in the clouds these days?

Oh, Margaret, I love this post and question too. I save everything. And label it. And then years later mercilessly toss it, wondering what was so important.

There are two letters I wish I had. The first was a letter I wrote to an actor when I was in grade school. I was very young, impressionable, and dealing with my first crush. It might have been addressed to Fabian or to Ed "Kookie" Byrnes. Never mailed. It was pre-pubescent torrid and to my horror, my mom found the letter and read it to my dad. I was kill-me-now mortified at the time, but I'd pay big money to read it today.

The second letter would be any of the notes my favorite boyfriend wrote me during the first few months of our relationship when we were in our twenties. He was a great writer and I was so in love. It would be wonderful to remember that kind of all-consuming infatuation again. sigh. He was a good one.

A few years ago, my grade school best friend Susie gave me a box of notes we exchanged in the 7th grade. They are precious (and kind of hilarious.) Totally "are you going to meet Butch and Freddie at the bowling alley?" Today they would be texts, lost in cyberspace. Back then they were passed student-to-student down rows of wooden desks at St. Thomas when Sister Damien wasn't looking. I cherish each one of them.

What a good friend Susie was, Rochelle. Must have been a ton of both sweet and bittersweet memories in those notes.

I have letters written by my mother and my aunts that I saved because I knew that someday I would want to see them again. I saved all of my sister's letters because they were so funny, and I figured that when we were old we would read those letters and laugh. We never got to be old together as she died when she was 47. Her daughter was 15. I took all the letters and grouped them according to her state of life, put them in a leather tooled box, and gave them to my niece. The letters have been a treasure for her as she got to read about her mother's experience with college and dating, growing in love with the man she would marry, and fear, excitment, and unbelievable love she felt when her daughter was born. My niece has talked several times about getting out her mother's letters and learning more each time about the things she can not ask her mother in person.

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