I started writing my son letters when he went to college. I would print them out, put them in an envelope, apply a stamp and drop them at the post office every week.
It sounds like a lot of effort (I could have called, texted or emailed), but there was some method to the madness. I figured he would be more likely to read and keep a physical letter.
Also, I knew there were things I could convey in writing that would be hard to say.
The idea came to me one day when I passed one of those “tiny libraries” people attach to fences and lamp posts in front of their houses. Inside one, I found a copy of the Great Gatbsy.
The preface was written by the author’s grand-daughter. She noted that her mother, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald, had received regular letters from her father while she was at Vassar.
The preface also noted that she hadn’t bothered to read them. But she didn’t throw them away.
The irony! Imagine, being the daughter of the author many regard as the greatest American novelist of the 20th century and not bothering to read his letters.
F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, 18 months before Scottie graduated.
He wrote to his daughter often. His most famous letter was written in 1933, when she was 12. He wrote four bullets to “worry about” and 16 things to ignore. Aside, from the item on “horsemanship,” the list holds up arguably well.
Scottie would describe her childhood as “idyllic,” even though her father was an alcoholic and her mother was locked in an insane asylum.
I started writing letters the year after I graduated high school. I was doing a gap year in Norway and it was too expensive to call. I wrote my parents and friends. And they wrote back. Everyone wrote longhand, usually on “onion paper” because it was thin and light.
I started typing letters in college, initially using a manual typewriter and later an IBM PC. I printed copies, but the ink used in the dot matrix printers has faded, making them hard to read.
I recently found a box of my college letters. Needless to say, mine don’t hold up as well as Fitzgerald’s. I was trying to be too clever and now they make me cringe. I should have hewed closer to the facts.
Fitzgerald died broke in Hollywood, his star having faded. He had wanted to be buried in a family plot at St. Mary’s Church in Maryland. The church refused, saying he was a lapsed Catholic.
Fitzgerald was rescued from relative obscurity by the U.S. Army, which decided to include Gatsby in a packet of books sent to the troops in World War II.
That fame probably helped when, 35 years later, Scottie asked St. Mary’s to reconsider its decision and allow her father and mother to be interred in the family plot.
The headstone is inscribed with one of the most famous sentences in American literature, the the ending of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”