Who will know me when I’m dead and famous?

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I don’t expect to die famous. There was a time, in my heyday as a newspaper columnist, when I was pretty well known around the county where I lived. Those columns still exist in the bound copies of the newspaper in the library, but it’s doubtful anyone rereads them or even remembers that I wrote them.

Just suppose, though, that someone did. Just suppose those columns suddenly caught on long after I’ve left this world. And just suppose they ask, long after anyone is around to remember, just who was this Monica person?

There would be no answer, because there would be nothing and no one left to talk about the details of my life, my struggles, my beliefs, my contributions. And, more importantly, there would be nothing written, nothing preserved, to talk about them either.

Nowadays, you have to be famous ahead of time to insure that letters, diaries and personal papers are preserved

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for future generations. Ordinary people don’t have a chance and, in this email and texting society, some of the more notorious may have a harder time of it, too.

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about the impermanence of our written words, but it struck me again as I started a new book called “A Daughter’s Love.” It’s about Meg Roper, the daughter of St. Thomas More, the 16th century Chancellor of England who was executed for refusing to acknowledge King Henry VIII as head of the Catholic Church in England.

This book refers to letters, notes and memoirs of both More and his daughter. Without them, no one would really know for sure what either of them thought of the issues of the day, or what their lives were like in those long-ago times.

I’ve also read interesting stories about the pioneers of this country, stories preserved in the letters, journals and diaries of those who made that

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history. Not only did they write down the daily trivia of their lives, but other people saved what they wrote. They saved them not because those people were famous, but simply because they were loved and their words were precious.

I’m probably unusual in that I still write letters, real letters, and not just email. Bur even so, I have no doubt that no one is saving those letters. I don’t save the letters I receive, either–although I do have a stack of my mom’s squirreled away for “someday.”

I remember when my dad died a dozen or so years ago, my sisters and I worked together to clean out his house. On a shelf in his living room was a stack of post cards that he had received from me, one a week. I was touched that he’d saved them, and I thought it would have been fun to reread what I wrote, week after week, month after month. Unfortunately, my younger sister threw them out with the trash.

Nowadays, even if people wanted to save the written words of relatives and friends, there wouldn’t be many to save. Now, people don’t write letters, they write emails. Does anyone print them out and save them? I doubt it. People don’t write diaries any more, either; they write blogs. Nothing on these computers is permanent; even the backups we may think to make will be technologically obsolete in only a few years, to say nothing of when our grandchildren are old enough to be interested. They’ll be irretrievable.

Even our photo albums have become online only, or

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buried in the hard drives of our computers. I keep telling myself I need to go through the thousands of photos I have stored and choose important or memorable ones here and there to print and put in albums. That’s the only way they’ll be available for future generations to enjoy, if they’re interested,once the computer technology has been outstripped by something faster and fancier.

Worse, I shudder when people predict that someday newspapers will be a thing of the past, that everyone will get their information on hand-held gadgets. I love turning the brittle pages of hundred-year-old newspapers to see what were the issues and daily do’s of ordinary people. Somehow, I can’t imagine that libraries will hold shelves of still readable Kindles a century from now.

So, what will this generation look like when it’s history? In a hundred years, what will people refer to when seeking a glimpse of life in these current decades? If there are no letters, no diaries, no photos, and no newspapers, how will they ever know the struggles, joys, fears and courage that accompanied us in our day-to-day lives?

Will it be only then, when several generations have been lost to history, that someone will have an aha! moment and rediscover the necessity of printing and saving our words? Then, will they once again write and preserve ordinary things like letters and photos? Will they go back to hiding diaries in their lingerie drawers in the hopes that someone will find them someday?

I’m doing my part. I’m printing out these blogs as I write them, and storing them in files to be discovered when my name is barely a memory. Unless, of course, they all get thrown out with the trash when I’m gone.

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About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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