18 August 2011

What good is a family heirloom tucked away in a box?

My mother once told me that I don't get to "own" any family heirlooms, I can just become their "guardian".

Recently, I became the guardian of 10 years worth of letters written by my great-grandfather in Australia to my grandfather, who journeyed to the United States in 1931. It's a one-way conversation, as my grandfather's letters back home do not still exist.

My great-grandfather, Geo. W. W. B. Hughes, was a prolific letter writer. He would dictate his letters to his secretary, who then typed them on YMCA letterhead, which makes them easy to read and decipher.

They are rich with YMCA history and family history, all against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the start of World War II.

I knew about these letters and had read excerpts from them many years ago. When my grandfather, Noel A. Hughes, put together a family history back in the 1980s, he pulled out the family news and distributed it with the family tree.

I was a teenager then and I always thought the excerpted family news was kind of dull to read. But recently, when I read the family news within the context of the original letters, with all the YMCA news and other tidbits, I found it fascinating.

It was a perspective I wasn't used to reading -- that of the family left behind and how deeply they missed their son and how desperately they wished for more news. The admonishment to write more frequent and detailed letters is a constant theme.

Through the letters, my great-grandfather transformed from a name on the family tree to a real person. He was full of advice about careers, life and travels. He was an optimistic person, always seeming to keep a positive spin on the news from home. He knew how to network and work his contacts. And he was immensely proud of his children, especially his son who chose to follow his career path in the YMCA.

It was also fun to see my grandfather as a young man, needing guidance and advice, off on a great adventure.

In publishing the letters in this blog, I see it as an opportunity for me to further get to know my family, to learn a little history, and to maybe learn some life lessons. It's a way to share these letters with my family in the U.S. and Australia, so that they might enjoy them also. And it's a way to share these letters with the world, because I believe there are readers out there who will be interested in their content.

I hope you choose to take this journey with me.

Please feel free to leave me comments. If someone you're interested in is mentioned in a letter, let me know. Or if you can fill in any of the historical backdrop of these letters, do so.

Haley Hughes

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