I’m a little bit of a pack rat when it comes to paper. I saved all my train tickets and theater stubs from my college trip to Europe. In my scrapbook, there are wedding invitations (from people who aren’t even married anymore) and birth announcements. There is a massive box of stationery in my office full of note cards and sheets of creamy stock paper. I save choir programs and blank notebooks, newspaper clippings and magazines. So it should be no surprise that I had two boxes of correspondence dating back 25 years.
Last week, in a fit of de-cluttering, I went through the boxes and divided everything into piles:
- Birthday cards
- Christmas cards
- Stuff from my family
- Separate piles for several friends
- Letters send to me while I was in England
- Pen-pal letters
- Pitch it
Reading my friends’ letters reminded me of how we were then. There are letters from one of my best friends D, away at debate camp in high school. My parents couldn’t afford to send me. I loved her erratic missives, written in her unmistakable scrawl, keeping me up to date on late nights of Mountain Dew and building files for upcoming debates. There are birthday cards full of inside jokes. Notes passed during classes. A record of a 20-year friendship.
There’s a stack of letters from A, sent while we were both in college in different states, but struggling with being away from home, with boys and studies. We went through a make-an-envelope-out-of-a-magazine-page phase so several letters are in slick handmade cases. I have a pile of birthday cards from A also, mostly having to do with the fact that I’m younger (by all of 6 months).
I found several notes from a high school friend who went to the same college as me for one year. Her beautiful calligraphic writing, pretty little drawings, and sticker embellishments – I don’t know what happened to her after she left college. She was Afghan and I worry about how she might’ve been treated after 9/11.
There are letters from R, one of my best friends from college, as she moved from a tiny town in Kentucky to New York City to forge a new chapter in her life. They are exuberant and desperate, beautiful and hopeful. They span a year or two, just until R got her foothold in her new city and began to untether from her life in Kentucky.
Letters from a slew of pen pals – Pam in Alabama. Vicky in Hull, England. Erin in Pennsylvania. Paul in Ireland. Carrie in Wisconsin. Pam’s letters were when we were in junior high and were full of news of her gymnastics activities, birthday parties for friends I’d never know, and trips to the Gulf Coast. Vicky’s letters, written on delicate air mail paper, detailed her school work and introduced me to a raft of Britishisms like hols and mad. I’ve tried to find her on Facebook to no avail but I think I did find her on MySpace. I think she’s a photographer. Haven’t tried to connect with her yet. Is that weird? Would you be weirded out if your pen pal from grade school emailed you?
There was, of course, stuff from ex boyfriends. There’s a strange card from a guy I met in college. B was a friend of D (see above on D) and after meeting me a scant handful of times, sent me a card that read something like, “Thinking of you just being somewhere in the world makes me happy. (inside) – Thinking of you anywhere near the bedroom makes me ecstatic!” Entirely inappropriate and made me glad my dorm had a key code lock on the doors. That went into the “Pitch it” pile.
Looking at all this paper, all this ink, I see people who love me and who shared something of themselves with me. There is so much support in those letters – words of encouragement from sometimes thousands of miles away. There is humor and fear – we laughed about the world together and at the same time, feared these new steps in our lives.
I’m not the only person in the world who mourns the loss of the written letter. Email is wonderful and useful, but there’s just no feeling exactly like getting a note in the post. Someone cared enough to buy a card, write a letter, get a stamp, write my name on the envelope. And I appreciate that, even now.
In case you wondered, the “Pitch it” pile was for things like generic holiday or birthday cards with no good pictures or personal notes, stuff from people I don’t remember, some from people I do remember but would rather not (see story about B above).
These boxes of letters have moved with me from my parents’ house to my first apartment, to a rental home, to my in-law’s, and now to my condo. The older box was a cardboard gift box that at some point in the late 80’s I covered with wrapping paper. It’s silver with cartoonish penguins on it and “Happy Birthday” in red letters. The other is a sturdier affair, purchased from Pier One and has travel paraphernalia on the top. I consolidated and organized, and put everything in my cedar chest, where all my special things go – baby booties, first communion bible, some of my grandmother’s things, my wedding veil and tiara.
I just cannot bear to throw these things away. I like looking back at where we’ve been, my friends and I. Between the lines about chem tests and basketball games are the hopes, fears, and loves of two dozen people who mean the world to me – or very much did at one time.