James Gordon Dove, or, Why Writing Matters

Letter from JGDI finally had the chance over the long Thanksgiving weekend to look at a stack of old photographs. It left me curiously disoriented, because they went through such a wide range of times and places and moments in my life. By the way, one consistent thing was that my hair looked pretty great in all sorts of haircuts, and I never once thought my hair looked great at the time so let that be a lesson. Anyway, in the packet of photographs was a letter that my brother Gordon wrote as a student in Moscow in September, 1979. It came through the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki–he was one of the first US/USSR exchange students.

The letter is two sheets covered front and back in teeny-tiny handwriting, filled with specific details of the moment: “I should be enjoying it [class] but I’m tired and my pants legs are wet. Yesterday we were made to ride around in an open air bus in the rain for our excursion to the Exhibition of various achievements of the Soviet Union…In the Cosmos building we saw many, many pieces of Soviet Soyuz hardware. They had a mock up of the Apollo-Soyuz link-up and Apollo somehow looked like a huge trash can. Isn’t that interesting.”

Another part is about how another student told (in Russian) the man behind her in a phone line that the phone doesn’t work, and he recognized that she was American and began speaking English to her. “He invited her and the people with her and friends to meet Saturday night to go to the restaurant where he plays in the band (most restaurants have them) so he could practice his English. So eight of us went on a very long bus ride to the southernmost side of Moscow and were allowed into a closed restaurant by a doorman and were seated at a long candlelit table with crystal and whole paper napkins(as opposed to eights cut into triangles)” He talks about the food in loving detail, and “We also consumed 5 bottles of vodka in the traditional fashion plus a bottle of champagne. It was fun.”

Through the handwriting and the words come the voice of my brother Gordon, who died over 20 years ago. I miss him every day, and often wonder what life would have been like if he had been able to stick around. World AIDS Day seems like a good time to think about how terrible that disease was and is.

Everything is in tiny snippets now–the Facebook status, the 140-character tweet, the couple of sentences that are catchy enough to get picked up and reblogged on Tumblr, the 6-second video, and most of all, pictures pictures pictures.  I suppose if you added them all up together, you would get some kind of an idea of someone, and for some people I’m sure that the visual parts speak more vividly to them than writing would.

For me, though, I have this letter. It is four pages, concluding, “I really need to stop. It’s after midnight and I should force myself to look at the syntax homework. I sincerely apologize for the wretched handwriting. Anon. Love, Gordon.” It not only reminds me of him–his wry and observant commentary, his dry sense of humor–but it also is the gift from him to me of perhaps an hour of his time in which he tried to convey to me, personally, his experience at an interesting point in his life. He was 19 years old, in Moscow, going where he was told to go and experiencing everything that came along. My sons barely knew him, but through his letters, they will be able to see his experience through his eyes. It’s amazing.

Writing matters. And the librarian in me must add…the preservation of writing matters.

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