Mails, emails and paper trails

I confess I've been reading other people's mail for many of the past decades. No, I've not been opening stuff misdelivered to my mailbox. I'm talking about the letters of people famous enough to have theirs collected into books.

But that's gotten me to thinking about the words of the rest of us - we who are not famous - whose stuff will never be collected into books. I've heard it said that ultimately, all we have to leave behind are our stories. I fear, by that measure, we fall woefully short.

That point has been driven home in recent weeks. I've been sorting through stuff - mostly photographs - of the Norwegians, Swedes and Bohemians from whom I'm descended. But they're slim pickings. There's not much to flesh out the faces in the pictures.

For example, I recognize the face of the immigrant meat packer who hit it big in Chicago, and returned to motor through Norway with his family, his two fancy cars and his servants. His Norwegian cousins were so impressed by the good life in America that they followed him back to Chicago to make it big on their own. Oh, but until they did, they said, they'd have to stay at his place. I don't know how large the meat packer's house was, but no house is big enough to withstand an onslaught of Norwegians.

Then there was the Swede who hustled tennis matches on cruise ships and married and divorced a model, apparently after one marvelous weekend. I'd never heard that about him until the woman's granddaughter emailed me from Toronto.

Finally, there was my grandfather, the Bohemian Brewmeister who, when Prohibition came along, turned to brewing for the hoi-polloi of Chicago. I have a few photos of him and two place settings of jewelry-grade, gold-plated dishes that he won playing cards, because, apparently, the man liked to gamble.

He was also demonstrative. He came home one afternoon to find my mother crying at the piano; she couldn't stand practicing. So, he did what so few of us would do: he took an ax to the thing, right there in the living room.

What were these people thinking? Surely there's more to their stories, but I don't know it. They all died before I was born, so I'm left to stare at their pictures and wonder.

Methinks it would be wise to leave a bit more of ourselves than pictures. We don't write letters much anymore, but anything would be icing on the cake. Random thoughts, musings of the day or any old thing. Scratch something out on tablet paper, tuck it away. It will be appreciated.

- Jack Fredrickson of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers

can email him at

[email protected].