For nearly two decades, I’ve kept a Christian Science Monitor article on the rewards of transcribing family letters and papers. Having completed my family transcription project shortly after clipping the article, I can attest to how meaningful these projects can be.
In Whispers from the Valley of the Yak I wrote about finding my parents’ letters home to their families from China. That moment was pivotal for me, reigniting the fascination I’d discovered for my birth country while traveling in 1980 with my parents.
“When I opened the last carton, a slightly musty smell wafted into the room. Ah, an older box and hopefully more interesting than bank statements. …Lifting [an old manila folder], I could see an inch or more of yellowed paper with crumbling corners. My curiosity spiked.
“Placing the folder in my lap, I intuitively wiped my hands on my jeans before opening it. Countless sheets of tissue-thin onionskin paper fanned out before me. Carbon typing filled the fragile pages from edge to edge…
“My heart quickened and my mouth went dry. Taking a quick gulp of tea, I remembered Mom telling me years ago…the letters were in storage but she didn’t know where. Time seemed to slow down as I reached for the top page.”
With my parents’ permission, I took the letters home to transcribe them. The task soon became monumental. The letters were in random order, and it took detective work to make sense of them.
Because the first page of each letter was dated, the easy part was organizing them by year. I then had to determine which pages belonged together in a letter. This required spreading the pages out. Then I had to follow the story line from one page to the next. The process became tricky when a page stopped at the end of a paragraph. Was there more to the story or was that the end of the letter?
When I had a year sorted and in order, I transcribed it before going on to the next year’s pages. The transcribing was my payoff for all the work of sorting. I knew in reading snippets of a story these represented a family treasure. For one thing, the letters lent more details and context to the stories of adventure my father loved to tell.
As I transcribed the letters, mostly in the evenings after my day’s work, my parents’ story came into full focus. It was extraordinary. I better understood the work they’d joined at West China Union University – the nuances of teaching a generation of Chinese doctors. I felt the immediacy of their adventures as well.
The letters provided a front row seat onto what was happening in China then. The 1930s encompassed struggles between the Communists and Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalist government as well as the jockeying of warlords.
When the Communists made their Long March through West China in the mid-1930s, they passed not far from Chengdu. Close enough, it turns out, that Dad treated Zhou Enlai at the hospital at one point. Zhou, considered the intellectual among the Communists, later became the premier of the People’s Republic of China.
I learned about Japan’s 1937 invasion of Shanghai, a precursor to WWII in the Pacific and all that came after. As Japan took over China’s eastern provinces, universities and medical schools moved faculty, students, and educational programs to universities farther west. At one point, WCUU hosted six different schools on campus, straining their own resources.
The US first introduced the new B29 bombers into the Pacific theater of WWII in 1944. The planes were based outside Chengdu on airfields hand-built by thousands of Chinese men and women. Also, supplies and war materiel flown into West China via the “Hump Airlift“” from India were destined in part for Chengdu. As the war continued into the 1940s, Chengdu grew ever more crowded with military personnel.
Most meaningful to me, however, was what I gleaned about my parents as a young couple. I glimpsed them at a time when Mom was unsure of herself, even as her commitment to medicine was unwavering. I saw Dad grow in his understanding of what it meant to be a medical missionary. And so much more.
Some of my work with the “China letters” took place while my parents were both alive. I discussed formatting ideas with them and enlisted them in decisions, so they could picture how the letters came together. There was enough material for two volumes: Volume 1 covers 1930 through 1935 and Volume 2 1936 through 1945.
The most valuable aspect of this labor of love was that I absorbed a more genuine understanding of them and their story. Their time in China shaped their life together. China was the crucible for the people they became, the glue that kept their marriage together. And their story became ever more meaningful to me, too.
In the end, this understanding enabled me to reach across the gulf between my mother and me. It became the bridge that led to forgiveness.