By Sally Wheaton
Alex pulled the wagon to a halt and jumped down. “Letter from home” he called to Sarah as he walked into the house. Sarah was busy at the stove, but she turned immediately, wiping her hands on her apron, her face lit up by a dazzling smile.
“Hannibal, letter from home!” she called out to her son.
She sat down at the table as Hannibal appeared and scrambled up next to her, sitting close so that he could see the letter as she read it. She put one arm around his shoulders and pulled him close, grinning down at him.
She had corresponded regularly with her mother Back East ever since she had left and the arrival of a letter from Grandmother Worsley always brought great excitement to the Heyes household.
Alex smiled to himself as he watched the two of them huddle together over the letter. A letter from home was a major event for them – an event which would usually last about a week. It completely bewildered Alex, but he was always happy to see them smiling and excited. He decided to leave them to it and headed back outside.
“Who’s turn?” Sarah asked.
“Yours,” Hannibal replied.
Carefully she opened the letter – something they took it in turns to do – and then she handed it to Hannibal to read the first line.
“My dearest Sarah, Hannibal and Alexander,” he began, covering his mouth as a small giggle escaped at the full version of his father’s name. His mother ruffled his hair in a gentle warning. He composed himself and handed the letter back to her.
Although he could already read quite well, his grandmother’s fancy handwriting was still beyond him – not surprisingly, as it often proved a challenge to Sarah herself. He liked to have a go though and the first line had become something of a speciality for him, being the same every time, it was easy enough of course.
Sarah settled down to read. The letter began with news that one of Grandmother’s neighbours had decided to take the wagon train West. As Sarah expected, she had hardly finished the sentence before Hannibal piped up. “Why?”
She explained some of the reasons for moving West to him, then gave him a moment to digest the new information before picking up the letter again. Before she could even begin again, however, Hannibal had another question.
“Why did you and father come West?”
She smiled at him fondly. This was one of the reasons she so loved the letters from home. It would take forever to read through the whole letter because Hannibal would want to know anything and everything on the way. And that was fine by her, she loved spending this time with him. She explained why they’d come West and then he asked her to tell him his favourite story from the journey, about when his father fearlessly and heroically swam the river, against the powerful underwater current and the raging torrent of white water gushing over the enormously dangerous jagged rocks, to lead the wagon train safely across – all without dropping the rope of course.
Sarah smiled to herself. It wasn’t exactly how she remembered it of course, but Hannibal loved the story and both he and his father liked to retell it at every possible opportunity and every time they did, that current was just a little bit stronger and the rocks were just a little bit bigger.
It was a full fifteen minutes later when she returned to the letter. Grandmother went on to tell them about the smart restaurant Grandfather had taken her to for her birthday. She described the fancy décor and food and the way the ladies were all dressed in their finery. Hannibal listened intently. He was fascinated by the lives his grandmother and grandfather lived and he thought that Back East must be the most exciting place in the world, almost as exciting as some of the places his mother told him about from her books. Before she could continue though, he wanted to know if she had ever been to a fancy restaurant or worn a fine dress.
Another ten minutes and several stories later, she turned back once again to the letter.
And so it continued. Sarah reading a few sentences and then Hannibal interrupting with questions or with comments of his own. It took over an hour to read the entire letter, but they had had a wonderful afternoon. When they were finished, Sarah took the letter and placed it carefully on the shelf in the kitchen and then turned her attention back to the evening’s supper preparations.
The next morning, Sarah came in from feeding the chickens and, as she expected, she found Hannibal sitting at the table studying the letter, having retrieved it from the shelf by standing up on the chair. She smiled to herself, he didn’t know she knew about the chair.
He was trying to read the letter, using a mixture of figuring out what the letters and words were and his memory of what it had said. She left him to it for a while, smiling at the concentration on his face. He would be content with this for a while, but when he became frustrated by it, he would ask her to read it to him again.
She continued with her chores and about ten minutes later, he brought the letter to her and once again, they sat together at the table and she read it aloud. This time he sat quietly, listening carefully all the way through without interrupting even once, though as she neared the end, she could sense him almost ready to burst with questions.
A few days later, after having read the letter several times, they sat down together to write back to Grandmother.
First, Sarah updated her mother on daily life in the West, telling her about the farm and how the crops were progressing this year and then of the town events and gossip. Then she told her about their home and described her latest failures on the domestic front. Sarah knew that would result in a tut-tut in her mother’s next letter along with a discourse on where she was going wrong. But Sarah wasn’t worried about that. She would cheerfully read it and resolve to do better next time.
Next, came the part which both Hannibal and her mother insisted was the highlight of the letter. It was Hannibal’s turn to tell his grandmother what he had been doing. This usually involved a tale of one of the many “adventures” he always seemed to find himself in. Grandmother Worsley had commented in her last letter that he seemed to have a natural talent for that. This had made Hannibal beam with pride and Sarah had had a most difficult time keeping a straight face.
Today, he wanted to tell his grandmother about the enormous spider he had found in his bed a few days ago.
“Are you sure Grandmother will want to hear about that?” asked Sarah, knowing with certainty that she wouldn’t. “How about you tell her about the books we’ve been reading?”
“No.” Hannibal’s mind was made up. “She’ll want to know about my spider,” he said positively.
“Well, if you’re sure,” Sarah replied with a silent apology to her mother. Hannibal told his mother what he wanted to say and she wrote it down for him. At one point in the description she paused and asked if he was certain about this much detail. He simply nodded, yes, he was absolutely certain Grandmother would want to know about this.
With a small sigh, Sarah continued to write about the big black, shiny body and the long, hairy legs, about 4 inches long, running across the sheets. Sarah eyed him doubtfully. “Four inches?” she asked. He nodded. “You sure?” she asked.
He thought for a moment. “Maybe five,” he replied with wide eyes. She nodded and wrote ‘with legs about one inch long’.
She breathed a sigh of relief when that story came to an end and put her foot down when Hannibal wanted to continue with the story of the toads. Instead, she insisted that he tell his Grandmother about the books they had been reading together.
Eventually, when they’d written everything they could think of, save the toad story of course, Sarah read it back to him. Hannibal loved his description of the spider and made Sarah read that part back to him three times. Finally, they both agreed the letter was ready.
At the end of the letter, they both signed their names, Sarah first, and then Hannibal carefully added his name underneath his mother’s. ‘Your grandson Hanibal.”