Uncertainty and Connection in the Archive’s Katherine Tenney letter collection
Guest Post by Rosie Hammack, Sullivan Scholar summer intern in the SMCM Archive. Among other tasks, she is describing the letter collection of St. Mary’s Female Seminary-Junior College alumna Katherine Tenney ‘37 (sister of national archery champion Jean Tenney ’34), who wrote home nearly every day during her time at St. Mary’s.
“Everything has so many ‘maybes,’” laments 18-year-old Katherine Tenney in a letter sent home on a mid-October afternoon in 1936 (one of 131 included in the collection). It’s true—the world for Katherine Tenney was riddled with maybes. Nearly every letter in the collection includes a battery of “ifs” and “thens.” In the 1930s, travel plans were rarely secure. Letters got lost in the mail. Mailing addresses went missing or became obsolete. Compared to our modern era of information, her’s was a world of inconvenience.
And yet, in the weeks that I have spent describing her letters, I have come to enjoy that inconvenience. Saved without return letters, the Katherine Tenney collection is a conversation cut in half; uncertainty is webbed into the experience of reading it. Through the effort it takes to put the puzzle back together (and to learn to accept the missing pieces), that uncertainty has helped me forge a bond with its maker.
To be clear: this was a slow and often frustrating process. Katherine’s letters are stream-of-consciousness. Many are jumbled and repetitive, often broken up by curt, stilted sentences and requests for money or apples or bowstrings. Yet through these letters Katherine sustained strong ties to her family and friends. And amidst the daily tedium, the affected courtesies and the petty drama, the poignancy of genuine human connection occasionally shines through.
On a Tuesday in November, 1936, Katherine sent this letter home:
Transcribed: “Mother dearest, Just rec’d your card. It all just doesn’t make sense to me, I feel like I’m just up in air all the time. I’ll be thinking about you all the time – I know what you’re going thru with. I hope Mrs. Henesy came. I was going to call you up tonite but suppose there isn’t much use. I’m enclosing $2 for flowers, if that isn’t enuf, please let me know. I’ve just these few seconds before class but just wanted you to hear from me. I so wish I were with you but I hope Mrs. Henesy is. How is Pop? Give him my love + sympathy. Did you engage Mr. Kauffman? All my love K.T.”
Cryptic as this card may be, it isn’t a challenge to imagine the 18-year-old girl who wrote it. Between the hurried lines of cursive we can see her bent over her desk, writing and scrapping and writing again, pen working feverishly to combat some unknown tragedy. And somehow, in this one-sided interaction between conscious reader and eternal writer, the unknowns bring this moment alive. The specifics are blurry, ill-defined, and, at the end of the day, unnecessary. I understand. Through uncertainty, I am allowed access to a tenuous but intimate bond. For a moment, “up in air,” I sit with her.
We live in an age of instantaneous information, with constant access to much of the corpus of human knowledge. We have done away with the inconvenience of unknowing. In that space, it seems we may be missing something profound.
In the incomplete correspondence of Katherine Tenney, connectedness thrives among “so many ‘maybes.’”