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About Letters to Esther

Several years ago, I found a large wooden crate jumbled full of letters at a flea market. The stall owner was selling them piecemeal. I started digging through the mess and noticed that they all seemed to be addressed to the same person. I wondered how many had already been sold; it seemed criminal to me that someone�s life was being divvied up and meted out in little parcels, so I offered the stall owner $20 for the whole lot. He accepted, and I lugged the crate out to the car and took it home with me. I had no idea at that point what I�d end up doing with the letters, if anything. I just knew that they were in need of a guardian.

I knew I wanted to read the letters, but beyond that, I didn�t have any plan for what to do with them. However, it quickly became clear to me that I needed to find out more about the woman to whom they'd been written. Obviously, original documents are the best place to start researching a person. The problem was that these were letters to Esther, not from her. Sure, there is a lot of information about Esther�s life contained within those letters, but her voice is missing. Or so it appeared to be. What I found was that she had saved rough drafts of many of her replies. Those drafts were written on the backs of homework assignments, in faded pencil on badly deteriorated, pulpy paper, often on time stolen from her school day or evening studies. The more I learned, the more I became certain that I should do something to preserve and share these letters. Surely someone who cared enough not just to save a lifetime of correspondence, but to also keep rough drafts of her replies, would approve.

I started transcribing the letters a few years ago. It�s a tedious but satisfying process. I had in mind putting them online, but at that point, I had no idea how I wanted to go about it. Last year, I decided to start uploading them to a blog, so that I could get a feel for whether or not people even wanted to read them. It wasn�t a perfect solution, and the project soon got bogged down for several reasons. I decided to hold off on uploading any more letters until I had the time and energy to create a website for them. So, that�s what I�m doing now.

About Esther herself, I�ve been able to find out quite a bit. She fell in love, I think, with a young man from her hometown of Geneva, Indiana. The letters between Esther and Richard began when she was in high school and Richard in college. Esther later attended Indiana University, and condinued to write to Richard for a couple more years. At some point, and for some reason I�ve been unable to determine, the relationship�-and the letters to and from Richard�-ended. It may be that those letters were destroyed by Esther herself, or by a family member after her death in the 1997, or maybe they were sold before I bought the crate of letters. I know that after Esther finished college, she taught grade school. She later married a man named Robert H. Cooper. Dr. Cooper was a lover of nature, a conservationist, and a professor of science at Ball State University (my alma mater). The Cooper Science Building was named after him. I�ve spent many hours in that building, so it was a very strange feeling to see that circle closed, and to know that Esther was part of my life long before I�d ever "met" her.

It�s funny how themes recur in one's life. When I was small, my family would drive around in the country and look at old, abandoned houses. We�d park the car, then everyone would get out and go their separate ways, exploring. The grown-ups seemed more interested in the crumbling bones of the buildings, but I was always fascinated by the detritus left behind. Pieces of yellowed newspaper stuck under torn bits of linoleum, marbles or the arm from a doll that must have belonged to long-gone children, calendars left on damp and peeling walls, a spoon lying in a door-less cupboard; it was the small artifacts that commanded my attention. And so, I guess it's only natural that Esther's letters called out to me.

E-mail: shelly@cat-sidh.net