All the small things

What I have learned from reading WWII letters

This semester, as a part of a project for one of my classes, I have been reading and transcribing letters my grandparents wrote to each other during World War II. Going into this endeavor, I had the mistaken impression that I was going to be able to digitize a whole year’s worth of letters, but when it came down to it, I had difficulty finding the time to transcribe even a month’s worth. This isn’t because I had an unrealistic expectation of how much time I would have — rather, it is because I realized just how much was packed into each of their letters.

When I decided to undertake this project, I was excited to learn more about World War II, and from a reliable primary source. I expected dramatic accounts of warfare, bombs and politics. And there certainly is some of that, but really, it is few and far between the mundane details of everyday life that were written down.

In school, textbooks only get the highlights of the war. But in these letters, I read about every meal of chicken my grandpa ate, every truck he had to load and unload and every volleyball game he played in his spare time. I read about how my grandma couldn’t go to work because she had pink eye and all of my grandparents’ friends who were also split apart by the war.

I also read about the interactions my grandpa had with the local Filipino people. He went to a party and danced with them, he got invited to one of their weddings and he bought a few hand-made bamboo chairs. I got to read my grandpa’s observations about the cultural differences and see how the interactions he had with the people around him seemed untainted by the setting of war.

These letters are rich with the details of life. Meals, pre-bedtime routines, illnesses and speculations about friends and family. And, of course, a lot of words about how much the two love and miss each other. My grandparents seemed to write to each other about everything — sharing their lives from afar when they couldn’t physically share their lives by living in the same space.

While seemingly mundane, the minutia of these letters are actually quite beautiful. When you think about it, most of our lives are comprised not of big, momentous occasions, but of little actions that are often overlooked. I probably wouldn’t think to write to someone about what meal I ate, how I organized my desk or when I took a bath, but maybe I should value those things more. After all, it is all those little moments that add up to make me who I am.

If we cherish each little moment and find some significance in it, then I imagine life would be a bit more interesting. A lot of times, someone will ask me, “What did you do today?” and I say “Not much,” because I didn’t do anything interesting or noteworthy. But perhaps there is value in telling them, “I woke up, took a shower, ate some eggs and then walked to class.” As I reflected on these little tasks, I imagine I would remember something more noteworthy — perhaps an interesting sight I saw on my way, or how much I enjoyed the warm water of my shower.

Unlike in movies or history textbooks, our lives are not really highlight reels of big moments. Big moments do exist and deserved to be celebrated, but most days we are just going through a routine. If we can learn to appreciate and share that routine with others, perhaps the routine will be a little less mundane, and a little more meaningful.

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