Here in California, it is unusually cold for late April, but that was fine with me. I settled in last evening, wrapped in my favorite blanket, to watch the seventh and final installment of HBO’s spectacular adaptation of David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. As with the prior episodes, I was not disappointed. The story of their lives was told with painstaking accuracy and the kind of attention to detail that has already rendered this mini-series a classic. As McCullough predicted, the audience comes away not just with information about the origins of this country, but “feeling what happened.”
What fascinated me as I watched each week was the central role played by the writings of the characters not just in shaping the foundation of the United States, but in providing us the ability, more than two hundred years later, to appreciate and understand how they lived, what they thought, and how their actions formed the world’s greatest democracy.
For me, the most interesting part of the story, for me, was the relationship between John and Abigail Adams, considered to be one of the greatest love stories of all time. They spent long periods of time away from each other, she raising four children and maintaining the family farm while he was off working to forge a nation out of rebellion. They communicated by letters delivered months or even years after they were penned. In all, they wrote more than 1,100 letters to each other! Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney studied those letters in preparation to bring John and Abigail back to life for a twenty-first century audience.
After leaving the White House and retiring to his farm, John Adams wrote his memoirs at Abigail’s urging. In one scene, papers strewn about his study, he doubts that posterity will be interested in his story-telling. “What possible use could anyone have for a seven-volume account of so many impulsive, tactless, ill-considered things?” he asks Abigail. “If I had it to do over again, I would be a farming, shoe-making deacon like my father.”
He also wrote letters to many other people. In fact, in their final years, Adams and Thomas Jefferson corresponded regularly.
What form will our memoirs take? Two hundred years from now, will authors still be writing biographies and Hollywood still churning out movies? If so, what tools will the biographers and script writers use to gain an understanding of how we lived our lives and what mattered to us?
John and Abigail Adams poured their hearts out to each other in long, handwritten letters that allow us to appreciate the depth of their commitment to their family, willingness to endure tremendous hardship for the sake of their commitment to their principles, and sincere respect and affection for one another. Were it not for those letters, we would be left to speculate about their relationship, perhaps through clues gleaned from others’ written observations of them.
As a child, I happened upon bundles of letters stored in my mother’s cedar chest. I remember sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed one day as my mother took the key from her jewelry box and lifted the lid to retrieve some long-stored treasure, the smell of cedar filling the room as the lid was propped open. I still recall exactly how everything was organized inside that mammoth receptacle, including the neatly bundled letters, tied with ribbon and tucked neatly into the shelf that was built into the lid. I picked them up and began flipping through them. My mother snatched them away from me, but not before I recognized a youthful version of her handwriting on envelopes addressed to my father.
Sometime between that day in the early 1960’s and 2002, when my sister and I combed through every inch of this house deciding which of their belongings we should keep and which would be either given or thrown away, one or both of my parents obviously decided that those letters should never be read by their children — or anyone else. When we retrieved the key from my mother’s jewelry box and opened the lid to begin dividing up the contents of that cedar chest before my sister removed it to her house, the letters were gone. And we never found them anywhere else in this house.
While I respect my parents’ decision to keep private whatever details about their lives were set forth on those pages, I am also saddened because the insight we would have gained into the early days of their relationship and the hardships they endured during World War II — when those letters were drafted — is lost forever.
How will the quality of our relationships be communicated to the generations who follow us? Through home videos, emails, and an assortment of Hallmark cards signed — as they are in our family — merely “Love, _____?”
We are perpetually connected to each other and the world around us through technology. But will the remnants of our daily transmissions communicate to our descendants the true nature and meaning of our interactions with and interconnectedness to those most important to us? Will they be able to appreciate and assess our intimate connections to other human beings through those ongoing snippets of communication?
And how many of us actually reveal our deepest, truest feelings in detail in written form, even if we do so via email or in a Word document? Considering the amount of information we absorb and data we process on any given day, as a direct result of being perpetually connected, how many of us even have the time left over to think about the quality of our most intimate relationships, much less write about our feelings?
I happened upon a blog recently where the author asked this question: If you knew you had just one week left to live, what would you do?
This week, I challenge you to consider this variation on that inquiry: If you knew you had just one week left to live, what would you write and to whom? Would you want to leave a written legacy to rival that of John and Abigail Adams or . . . would you want to write anything at all? Would you, like my parents, opt to destroy the writings already in existence that give insight into your relationships, keeping those details forever a secret known only to you and those persons?
Click here to read Part Five.