Tag Archives: covid-19 pandemic

What Difference Can a Letter Make?

What Difference Can a Letter Make?   —by Jinny Batterson

Of late the future of the United States Postal Service seems in doubt. Congressional hearings are being held. The recently appointed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has defended his changes in service levels as attempts to streamline the post office’s business practices. Others have questioned whether the changes he is implementing undermine vital services, including a crucial pandemic-era method for casting ballots—by mail. 

I’m a fan of the postal service. It’s provided a lifeline, especially during periods when I’ve resided outside the United States. Then, the postal service provided the surest way for me to interact with family and friends back home. Internet access might be spotty or absent, phone lines might go down in earthquakes or other natural disasters, but the mail nearly always got through. 

Today, August 26, many in the U.S. celebrate Women’s Equality Day. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution for women’s suffrage:  “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Many of us know the story of the letter that made a difference in the suffrage fight—a six-page handwritten missive from a widowed mother to her son, Harry T. Burn, a young 24 year-old Republican lawmaker from McMinn County, Tennessee. After hearing a scathing denunciation of the amendment by one of her son’s legislative mentors, Febb Burn was moved to include a gentle rebuttal in her letter, nestled among descriptions of doings on the family farm. She closed with a suggestion, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt…(a longtime suffragist).” When Burn broke a previous tie in the Tennessee legislature to support suffrage, others at first thought he’d made a mistake. He had not. He’d opted for conscience and the advice of his mother over political expedience in his heavily conservative district.  (For a lengthier account, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/local/history/tennessee-19-amendment-letter-harry-burn-mother-febb/ ).  

My family has a different letter that made a difference. It was written by an Army corporal serving in Germany. My uncle, John Voris, loved learning. He described in his letter that he’d sent a big batch of books home, and hoped for a new shipment soon. “About the books, … I try to keep one or two about me all the time. You see that four years in the army represents a big hole in your life. I try to keep studying and reading so that I can salvage some of these years, in part at least.”  

Much of the November, 1944 letter describes his prior campaigns and the bronze star he’d just been awarded. What made and makes the letter special is that it was received by his family at about the same time as the telegram informing them that he had been killed in action. While the letter couldn’t bring John back, it helped assuage their grief. His younger sister, a printer, had the letter typeset and distributed. It has been passed down from generation to generation. Along with a few pictures, it’s all we have to remind us of an idealistic young soldier who didn’t live to see the next peacetime. 

The Febb Burn letter is now displayed in a museum. Most family mementoes have a less illustrious place, but they are still special. Our emails, tweets and instagram posts are not likely to replace them. So take the time to write a postal letter to someone you care about. Maybe write to the Postmaster General, too. Letters make a difference.    

 

Checking Our Sources, Knowing Our Contexts

Checking Our Sources, Knowing Our Contexts   —by Jinny Batterson

As the pandemic caused by the corona virus drags on, amid increasing conjectures about how to respond, increasing finger pointing about whose “fault” it might be, I can feel emotionally overloaded. So far, no one close to me has died of the infection, though several friends and relatives have had cases of varying degrees of severity. The small enclave where I live stays mainly quiet, those of us retired or furloughed staying pretty close to home, those still in the paid workforce adjusting work routines to stay as safe as practical.  

More of us live more of our lives in virtual spaces—emails, virtual meetings, social media posts. It can be tempting to get all of our input filtered through some electronic medium or other. My biological and intentional families are politically diverse. In these fraught times, we sometimes avoid discussing politics, but it can be nearly impossible not to be influenced by what we see, hear, and read. When discussions get especially heated, I try to remember some of my history teachers, including my part-time historian mother. 

“Check your sources,” they would repeatedly caution. “Everyone has an angle. Why did this particular source frame this particular event in this way? What advantage did they gain from telling their story from this viewpoint?”  

It’s disturbing to me that a fair amount of “information” these days is murkily sourced, if sourced at all. Lots of groups with high-sounding names have turned out to be unreliable at best, malicious at worst. Conspiracy theories abound.

It’s unclear where the virus causing covid-19 originated. It’s unclear exactly when it first spread among humans. It’s unclear all the ways the virus may be transmitted. It’s unclear why some people have few or mild symptoms, while others with similar backgrounds can be severely affected.  Given these uncertainties, it’s natural for us to form theories about what’s happening. What’s not natural is for so many of us to be so adamantly certain of “answers.”

I try to vary the sources of information I review, to filter out the obviously bogus. I know, too, that I respond to content in part from the contexts in which my life has unfolded so far. During my childhood, polio was a crippling pandemic that tended to reappear each summer, impacting both children and adults in seemingly random fashion. In some years in the early 20th century, as many as 6,000 Americans had died. Most Americans knew that president Franklin Roosevelt had contracted polio as an adult during the 1920’s and never fully regained the use of his legs. At its maximum in the U.S., in the early 1950’s, there were nearly 58,000 U.S. cases annually, with nearly 3,000 deaths. Swimming pools closed. Parents restricted their children’s friendships. 

Eventually, medical researchers tracked down the source of the illness and developed successive vaccines. I remember when I was in elementary school being part of a large-scale medical trial in which many of us got doses of an oral vaccine. In 2020, polio infections exist in just three countries globally, with fewer than 200 annual cases. Global health workers do their best to detect and isolate pockets of infection, often in war-torn areas, and to make sure at-risk children get vaccinated against the disease. 

At some future point, this novel corona virus that is spreading illness and death will yield to research and to more effective responses. Until that happens, it behooves us humans, whatever our political leanings or backgrounds, to check our sources and to be as aware as we can of our contexts.