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The Age of Good Writing


My mother is at an age where she is losing everything. Her hearing and her sight were the first to go. Quickly followed by her sense of balance and her sense of taste.
But as these common faculties have abandoned her, one by one, and in some ways sealed her off from the simple life she has always led, she writes better now than she ever has.
I’m unsure of the science of it. Something like losing one sense heightens another. But there is no denying it. My mother, deep into her eighties, writes better now than she ever has.
Her life has been the definition of simple. A farm girl from a big family. She grew vegetables and raised livestock long before people chose to do so. To see a fresh carrot or potato in her hand, still, is to see it in the hands of someone who understands these things.
She wrote often in those days. And her writing was like the photographs I’ve seen of her. Shy. A little in awe of the world if not afraid of it.
She wrote to me all through college. One letter each week, which would arrive in my mailbox at the dorm on Tuesday afternoon. Beautiful, flowing script that seemed well-chosen for lengthy descriptions of ordinary events. A birthday. A wedding. An uncle having fallen off a step-ladder.
Over the years, the letters were not as frequent, but they never stopped. Every holiday was recognized. Including Veterans Day and the Fourth of July.
And on my birthday, every birthday without fail, there would be a letter from my mother.
And this is how I kept time. Marked history. It was my mother’s State of the Union message to me.
Throughout my years in school, these birthday letters were, I always felt, chiding in some way. As I grew older, the birthday letters began to include advice about my children.
And then, I’m not sure exactly when, they began to change. They were less about instruction and more about observation. They became beautiful.
A few years ago, there was a birthday letter that was simply a list of book titles. Imaginary book titles. Of books she wished she had written. The last sentence of her letter said simply: now, these are yours to write.
I kept that letter.
Listen to an overture to Clark Street Bridge: