Leaving One’s Mark: Letter Writing As History

By Richard Poethig
June 13, 2018

Poethig family in the Philippines, circa 1960

This Spring I learned the importance of letter writing in the preservation of history. Following my wife Eunice’s Memorial Service at Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago, my son Scott invited me to spend time in Philadelphia. I used the time to research Eunice’s and my archives at the Presbyterian Historical Society library located in Philadelphia.

Over sixty-six years of marriage we have saved correspondence related to life together. Our files revealed the crucial role letter writing plays in a family’s history. It tells the story of the times in which a person lives. This was true in the letters Eunice wrote from the Philippines to her mother in the United States. The letters brought me again in touch with her fine and steady hand and her ability to provide the detailed description of events she was reporting. This was an expectation that her mother had for family correspondence. Letter writing was a family tradition even as long distance telephone calls became more frequent.

There was a warm connection in the words Eunice wrote home. Her words and stories were meant to bring her mother close to the happenings in family life. As our family grew the various diseases of our children became a daily and weekly concern. The letters carried all the specifics of the illness, its duration and the final remedy. We knew that living in a new region of the world we might encounter new versions of a local malady. But in the end there was always Dr. Reyes who seemed to have a solution to all body ailments.

Then there was the buying and sending of fabric to make the dresses for the first three daughters to keep them in style. Some of the need for new clothes for the growing girls was solved by the school uniforms worn in Philippine schools. The exchange of fabric went both ways. The fashion and design of Philippine dress material had an appeal to Stateside relatives.

We now lived in a hemispheric and geological sphere where the natural world makes dramatic appearances. In his letter for the family, Scott at age seventeen recounted the events of 1970 which he called our Christmas “disasters” letter. He named five typhoons for the year in which the fifth typhoon “zipped right through Manila and its 200 MPH maximum winds broke a record set in 1882.” He also recounted the two earthquakes that he surmised was “one good method of discovering which buildings public officials made a profit off of…..one school building collapsed.” Then there were two floods that “seemed to be the advent of another 40 days flood, but the waters in Manila subsided with 37 days left to go, and no sign of Noah’s ark.”

Never to be dismissed from the correspondence was the recognition that we were residents in a new nation. We were sensitive in our responses to the political, economic and social events in a country in which we were invited participants. We could not easily disengage from our nation’s part in the 400 hundred years of colonial history of the Philippines. Neither could we live apart from the issues that were part of our daily life. There was a fine art to being invited workers in the Philippines and also inheritors of Philippines colonial history.

Eunice’s letters reflected the reality that we had been invited by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines which expected us to live out our religious commitment. The tenets of our Reformed faith allows no separation between that faith’s commitment and its engagement in the world. The letters were a witness to the fact we were not outside arbiters but fulfilling the task of providing our faith’s insight into the issues of emerging society. If we overstepped these bounds we were responded to with silence.

One event our son Scott listed in his review of 1970 was the student riots of January. The riots erupted when the global oil crisis of the early 1970s struck the Philippines. The rising price of gas in the Middle East forced up the costs of both global and local transportation. President Marcos immediately imposed a 50% tax increase on gas, which raised the prices of transportation in Manila. The jeepney drivers, the heart of the Manila transportation system, in turn raised their own rates. Financially hard pressed students, riders of the jeepneys, were the end recipients of the financial crisis. The students, already wary of the growing power of Marcos, had set in motion a season of unrest.

This was the beginning of the political drama that embroiled Manila and the Philippines for the next two years. The words in the letters in those two years were carefully chosen in reporting the events that ultimately led to the Marcos declaring martial law in September 1972. They painted a picture of the response our Philippine friends and others were making to the rising political crescendo leading to the diminishing of Philippine democracy.

When our family returned to the United States in the summer of 1972 daughter Kathryn remained behind to finish her senior year in high school in December. She continued the family letter writing tradition. She experienced and reported the immediate effects of martial law declaration in September 1972. She told of the unease among our friends, particularly those taken into custody and she described the beginning of what was to be fourteen years of Ferdinand Marcos authoritarian rule. Remarkably it was Kathryn who returned to the Philippines to work at a Vietnamese refugee processing center in 1984 and who was present to see and report on the dramatic end of Marcos rule in 1986.