I simply love letters.
A letter is so much more than an email. An email is just a click in time and doesn’t demand too much attention. It doesn’t feel real or permanent. It is quickly erased, easily forgotten.
But a letter is forever. Thick, creamy cardstock stationery. Whispery thin, onionskin air postal mailers. A letter is a visceral, tactile experience.
You can hold it, hide it, bookmark it between the pages of a novel. You can re-read it, re-write it, return it, crumple it up, perfume it, even burn it. But a letter is always a part of you.
I remember years ago, being homesick at camp and my dad’s letters to me. Every day I received his reassurance from back home, a short note with a candy bar inside. He never forgot, not even one single day.
I remember the long, dramatically, angsty letters I sent to him when he was on sabbatical at Harvard. I can still feel that ache of adolescence, how I spilled my heart out on the paper. He told me he kept those things.
I recall the notes that my mom placed on my pillow when I had a bad day at school, that said, you are my beautiful daughter.
And the notes that I wrote back to her, reassuring her that I was okay.
The furtive notes in high school, shuffled between my friend Richard and me, during class, that contained a detailed television comedy script we were writing.
The letters from my sister when I went away to college and she was still suffering through high school. We were each a lifeline to one another, though at different ends of rope.
The letters sent faithfully between my boyfriend and me, when we were apart during the summers of our college years.
And after our wedding, the ominous letter from my new mother-in-law, trying to make amends so we could forge a new relationship.
The long letter I sent to Dad before his trip to Iraq.
The glorious letter containing my college grades, with an A+ in Chaucer, the hardest course I ever took.
The annual Christmas letter from Dad, full of love and grace, and the generous check that helped us out so much.
The countless letters, with photos enclosed, sent to the proud Minnesota grandparents, so they could get a glimpse of our new babies.
The letter my daughter left in a tree knothole, in the backyard, when she needed to pour out her heart. I told her it might make her feel better to write it and hide it in there.
The glowing evaluation letters from our kids’ teachers. Of course those are tucked inside the file cabinet.
The letters that confirmed that my mammogram was clear.
The thoughtful condolence letter from our vet, after our sweet border collie, Henry, died. It actually helped soothe the loss.
The letter from my brother in jail that I never answered.
The fifteen sealed letters that my son gave me at Christmas, intended to be opened once a week while he was off the radar in the Amazon.
The long letter from a friend who betrayed me that I threw away.
The letters from my daughter that apologized or explained why she was having a tough day. I still have all of them.
The kids’ letters of acceptance to college.
The kids’ one letter of rejection from college. I saved that one too. Screw them.
And the letter that came four years later, that announced that our son was graduating summa cum laude from college. Hah!
The unexpected letter I got from an old friend when she found out I had been sick.
The letter from my beloved niece, that came to me here in Switzerland – so young, yet so wise, encouraging me in my writing.
Before my mom died, she underwent chemotherapy one last time. I so hated that she had to go through it all over again. I knew it would be hard on her little body, even though she had such a strong will and determined spirit.
So I tried to think of a way to help her through the months of nasty side effects. And I wanted to be more intimately connected with her, rather than just through phone calls.
So I wrote her a letter. Not an email – a real letter. And I told her to expect one in the mail, every day. Every single day.
Some of them contained memories told in detail about our family and the times she and I had shared. Some were mediocre poems. One was an inside joke about the soap opera I had gotten her hooked on years ago. One was a fake, signed, glossy photo of Tiger Woods, because she loathed him with a vengeance.
I’m not really sure what the letters meant to Mom. But I know what they meant to me. Writing to her helped me hold onto her. Every single morning that I opened up my laptop, she was there, alive and whole.
And my writing celebrated her and what she had given me. And so I was thanking her for being such a part of my life. And I was practicing the gratitude she had taught me.
And I thought about my letters as similar to my son’s letters from Ecuador – but in reverse. His were reaching out to me from a foreign country he hadn’t even gotten to yet. He was looking ahead at the months I would be unable to contact him and would be missing him. He was reassuring me that he was still present, even though out of reach.
But my letters to Mom were me looking back, clutching, trying to hold onto the love, attempting to freeze-frame all of the memories. And she was the one traveling alone to a distant place where I couldn’t follow, or even send a letter to.
Maybe my notes were actually my goodbye to her, I don’t know. Maybe, like Lewis, I was anticipating my loss.
But what I see now, is that our family letters had become a sort of circle, with the papery words fluttering between the years, bookmarking the generations.
And that perhaps the words were what held us together so tightly. Perhaps they were what bound and sealed us to one another – stamped with love, and postmarked with our temporary address here on earth.
Anyway, months later, I went home for my mom’s funeral, and I found my letters next to her favorite reading chair. And there was Tiger Woods, still smirking arrogantly on the door of the fridge.
It broke my heart. It felt like I had written the letters for nothing. My stupid, pompous, self-important words. They felt selfish – because I knew that they had really been for me.
And now I don’t want to keep them because they couldn’t keep her alive. The stories, the poems, the jokes, they were a feeble effort to try to make everything right. To give her hope, to help comfort me.
But mostly to help me believe that Mom wouldn’t die. But, of course, even words can’t do that.
I told you that a letter was forever, but it’s not really true. Just like anything else, a letter is written, received, cherished for a while, and then it’s gone.
But secretly, I like to think that one day someone will find my box of letters after I am gone. And read them and think they are something pretty special. And maybe I’ll have saved Mom’s letters in there too. And maybe someone will read about her, and about the two of us, and about how amazing our relationship was.
And maybe that person will think about letter writing in a new way. As a way to deal with a kid’s homesickness at camp. Or to help make an awkward teenager feel beautiful. Or even to share memories with a mother who is dying.
And, who knows – they might even have a daughter who can put a letter in the old mulberry tree out back, too.
So, I guess I’m ready to let go of them. My dusty letters, my old words. And so, if anyone asks – the box is in the storage shed, clearly marked, next to the Christmas ornaments. Just make sure they don’t get thrown away, okay?