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`Dear Family'

HAVE you noticed the frequent lament nowadays -- that of the dissolution of family ties? The distancing of brothers and sisters; of grandparents and young ones? The departure from family homes, and the disintegration of friendships which, try as one may, can never be duplicated? Division -- always division.

``I'll write, I'll write,'' are the promises, but letterwriting has become a lost art. So much so that when one sorts through the daily bills and advertisements and comes upon a personal letter, it is a novelty. A treasure. The envelope must be ripped open. Raggedly. The news read and reread.

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Letters are a particular treat because, in our experience, as days pass they become fewer and fewer and finally end up in the form of a short message on a Christmas card.

``Keep in touch,'' has come to mean a voice on the telephone. Nothing to re-read. Nothing to put away in a desk, to cherish for a blue moment.

Imagine the difficulty of keeping in touch if you were one of seven children as in my mother's family, or one of eight as in my father's.

Did they have a telephone in those days? Of course! I remember you cranked a wheel; then a woman asked what you wanted, and in our small town she was quite agreeable about exchanging a bit of chitchat. The night operator, a man, who I imagine was wakened from a nap on his cot by our cranking, seemed especially glad of chatter once he had been roused.

He was lavish with his help.

For instance, my grandmother had a soft voice and her very best friend was hard of hearing, so they waited to use the phone when the night operater was on duty because he (who could hear the pin that drops) would relay Grandma's message to her friend, who replied in her ``old country'' accent, which the night operator understood better than my grandmother did, he being of the ``old country'' lineage.

Back and forth, he repeated the messages between the two elderly women with a graciousness that implied they were doing him the favor, which perhaps they were because the nights must have been long in that small-town, one-room telephone building.

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A generation later, that is, later than the families of seven and eight children, we were only five, which should have made it easier for us to stay in contact with one another, but naturally there was the tendency to shove onto our mother the task of dispensing family news.

We moved farther apart in the location of our homes. Work took us from one city to another, and soon we, too, eased into the convenience of Christmas cards, plus sentimental birthday cards.

But one brother, the one who had settled at a greater distance from those of us who more or less lived in a cluster, never was satisfied by a solitary card. An early-morning telephone call, to be the first to wish birthday greetings, was his specialty. And it was nice to be remembered via human voice out of our happy past.

So we wanted more. And we decided to have more.

It was understood that all five of us couldn't write separate personal letters, much of which would be a repetition of what we wrote to the four others. It was also understood we wanted no duplicating machine to have any part in this contact between sisters and brothers.

A family letter!

We decided to write to all the others, in toto, the kind of newsy epistle we would relish receiving.

``Dear Family.''

Our brother set the pattern with a long letter in which he wrote about his wife and his children, in detail, as if they were characters in a book we must get to know to enjoy the book, and we became reacquainted after some years of being more or less mere names to one another. We heard of their interests, their hobbies, their garden and the nut trees, the size of the fish they caught in the river flowing along their front yard, and my brother's attempt at teaching himself how to play the piano.

This letter came to me first, along with a couple of rules that seemed necessary so the circuit would not bog down. One month we could hold the family letter. Then add our own, send on the accumulation and always there would be the fat envelope of five letters circulating (after we got started) from which we were to remove our previous letter when we added a new one.

We were to have a regular route. The pathway of our epistles was to be such that no two recipients living close to each other should succeed each other, giving all an equal opportunity to write of fresh events and not duplicate.

For we discovered that after the first letter, where we all followed our brother's pattern of using our own family as subject material, there had to be deeper scratching for subject matter that would be interesting for all to read.

NOW I'll tell you how ``Dear Family'' has fared.

It's six years old. It's eagerly anticipated. One of the interesting byproducts of our exchange is that there are also far more long-distance telephone calls these days so we can determine: ``Where's the letter? Who's holding it up this time?''

Also, it isn't just the original five correspondents who welcome the fat envelope. Sometimes their children write. The married partners feel the need to contribute (or dispute). It becomes a task to hold down additional ounces, which count up quite rapidly at the post office.

When it's one's own turn to remove a letter to add a fresh one, what a strange feeling to read what you said about your life less than a year ago.

Glue to hold a family together. That's what this fat letter becomes.

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