, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One of my favorite places to procrastinate websites is Letters of Note, where editor Shaun Usher posts “fascinating correspondence” — the letters of famous film actors and directors, of authors, of Beatles and Rolling Stones. (If you clicked that link, I’ll see you in a few hours.)

For months, my uncle has been meaning to give me a scrapbook my grandfather put together, containing many letters from mayors, congressmen, senators, and even a couple presidents concerning his poetry. Uncle Howard thought I would enjoy looking through it and using some of the contents on the site. We finally remembered to make the exchange last week.

I’ve come to think of the book as my family’s own Letters of Note, and I intend to publish some of the more interesting letters on this website. This afternoon, I took the fragile papers out of the “magnetic pages” of the photo album they’ve been in since I’ve been in diapers (at least). I spent some time reading a couple letters from “Mrs. Stephen K. Armstrong,” otherwise known as Neil’s mother. My grandpa felt deeply moved by the lunar landing and wrote a poem about it, which I mentioned in a blog post earlier this year.  What a strange coincidence to hear on the radio a couple hours later that Neil Armstrong had passed away.

My grandfather sent copies of his poems to the Apollo 11 team and Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Armstrong and received these two formal pieces of correspondence in reply that August: a lovely signed note from Viola Armstrong and a preprinted card from the Apollo 11 team, inside which is an unsigned, handwritten line: “Thank you very much for the poem.”

(Viola Armstrong was about six years older than my grandfather and would have been in her early 60s when her son made his small step. Beyond the bookend dates of her life, I don’t know much about her, but through the magic of the Internet, we catch a glimpse: Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Armstrong on “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1962, on the day their son became an astronaut. She’s just as adorable and sweet as I imagined.)

The real treasure of Grandpa’s scrapbook is the Oct. 18, 1969 letter from Viola Armstrong, a tiny, folded Hallmark card postmarked from 912 Neil Armstrong Drive, Wapakoneta, Ohio. Her opening line (“Just reread your nice letter again”) suggests she may have been going through the mountains of fan mail generating by the July moon landing and thought his letter and poems deserved a more personal reply. While I’ll most likely never know what my grandfather wrote to her, she mentions that he sent him the poem “My Home” and offered to send her a collection of poems. In her gracious letter, she suggests he send the poem to Ideals magazine, and she mentions his poem “Johnny Appleseed” as another favorite.

What struck me most about her letter is her humility. If ever a mother has earned bragging rights, it’s the mother of the man who walked first on the moon; that major accomplishment sparked the conversation in the first place. But her letter is focused on Art’s poetry and his family, and includes a warm invitation to “stop in and see us” the next time he passes through Ohio. (I’m not sure it ever happened — do any of my family know?)

The letter might not have much historical significance, as I’m sure dear Mrs. Stephen K. Armstrong wrote hundreds or thousands of replies to a nation overcome with awe and gratitude. It’s a glimpse of the humble roots of a Midwestern boy who became an American hero — and who can put a price on that? By most accounts, her son was cast in the same mold.

RIP, Spaceman.

NASA image of moon footprint