Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Letters: A Gift From Our Past to Our Present to Our Future

True, mail is slow, email is instantaneous. I love how in a matter of seconds what I have written via email will reach its destination, whether it is next door or the other side of the world. Questions can be answered within a day verses a week.  Email has many remarkable attributes but will never be as wonderful, as intimate as an actual letter.  ‘Dreamy’ is holding a piece of paper, a love note, next to your heart that a sweetheart has written.   There is something magical seeing a person’s handwriting verses the font that appears on a computer screen.   Mail gives us something tangible to hold on to, cling to after someone is gone.  Email is a virtual correspondence, to me not as personal. Hand written letters are our own personal time machines, they allow us to glimpse into our past, remind us of whom we were, the people who traveled in and out of our lives.

In the process of searching the basement for a box of old family photos to give my sister I rediscovered one of my many boxes of old letters and keepsakes.  Feeling nostalgic I grabbed the box, spent the next few hours journeying back into my past.  Sitting on my bed I took out the bundles of mail neatly held together by rubber bands, smiling as I separated them, reading the names and location on the return addresses. It felt as if it was Christmas in May as I pulled out souvenirs of my younger days; old football and graduation programs, a few business cards, an unused airplane ticket, soap on a rope and a few other “interesting” trinkets.  The letters tied together by a simple white scarf I held for a few minutes, not wanting to let go.  I ran my fingers over his last return address, HC-5 Box 84, FPO San Francisco, Agana Guam 96637. Twenty five years ago his hands wrote my address, my beautiful last letter.  I leaned my head against the wall, sighed, amazed at how much time had passed, saddened at how much life he has missed.  I put his letters aside; I wanted to read the letters I had forgotten, not relive what my heart has memorized.

The memories that had lapsed, long forgotten in the recesses of my brain, came to life as I sat Indian style with a pillow on my lap and read. When I finished each letter, I placed them neatly in piles around me.  Notes from high school had me laughing the hardest. Apparently thirty cents bought a soda, because that is what my secret sister gave me to buy a coke “to go with that scrumptious dinner.”  A small faded piece of paper reminded me my first secret sister was Jennifer McCarthy, who lived on Camelot Drive in Odenton.  Teenage frustration at life, being forced to move during high school was clearly evident in a single page letter dated 14 November 1977 with one sentence written over and over again, “I hate LA” (Louisiana) from my friend Margaret. However, the subject did change in her P.S., “What do you mean- you are close to having a boyfriend?”   I must confess I am curious now who the close to was as well??  Other than a handful of correspondences from St. James School (my first boyfriend) most of my high school letters are notes passed between friends discussing what boys were cute, recalling the countless dateless dances and heartbreak over not being liked by a crush. Most amusing were the notes discussing what happened over the weekends. The letter post marked May 1981 Colorado Springs, Colorado reminded me how much and how often my ‘big brother’ worried about me.  He was busy studying for finals but wanted to take time to write, remind me to be safe, have fun but be good at prom.  My last letter as a senior in high school; would be the first of many letters I would receive from the zip code 21412.  Dated 20 May 1981, 3rd class midshipmen, 2nd company 83, wrote to thank me for our walk the weekend before, “I think you’re a doll unfortunately awkwardness prevailed much of the time we were together.  Time however, does have a way of seasoning people. You are beautiful… Don’t close the door to romance.”   I don’t remember Midshipmen Evans so I think the door must have closed.

The letters from my college years were much different than the ones previously; they are evidence of my transition from a teenager to young lady, no longer school girl notes, the majority were from men vying for my attention. The many various relationships witnessed and recorded by pen and paper delivered by the U.S. Post Office. Sifting through the piles I was reminded of the Rugby player from 5th Company who wrote me in August of 1981. As I read his letters my memory came alive; he was from Tucson, Arizona and I met him while walking downtown with my friend Helen.  Our introduction; he made a funny remark about how my ice cream cone was bigger than I was.  It was melting down my hand faster than I could eat it.  He came to my rescue, retrieved a napkin and while I cleaned my hands he finished my cone.  I believe his pick up line was something to the effect, since we had officially shared germs I had to go out with him. He introduced me to the game of rugby and I introduced him to how fickle girls could be.  Another 3rd classman quickly caught my attention and I dated him for the next several months.  My mailbox was now receiving mail from 7th company no longer 5th.

 I couldn’t help but laugh at the Christmas card I received dated 12 August 1982. “I was thinking about you, and that made me think about Christmas.”  A post card from San Francisco reminded me at one time I was called Wild Woman #2 by my brother-in-laws friends.  My first card of 1983, came from Ann Flight, 1/1/83 a quick note telling me the cookies I made were delish and Happy 1983. I smiled at her signature, “Ma”.  There were many letters and cards from ‘Ma’.  The largest Valentine’s Day card I have ever received arrived in February 1983 from “Sunny California.” It cost 33 cents to send. Less than a month later, post marked March 9, 1983 San Diego, my introduction to the world of break-up letters.  He was a pilot, gorgeous, he was intelligent, he was sweet and I was not meant for him. The ‘break-up’ was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  The first letter to break my heart was sent December 1st, 1983 from Pensacola, Florida.  At the time it brought tears to my eyes, now I see the humor in it.  He was responding to a letter I had written him on my plane ride home from the Army Navy game in California. I was confused and needed to know what future he saw with me. He wrote all his friends were getting married and he was not ready for any kind of ‘formal commitment’.  He went on to explain he was pretty sure he loved me, but maybe he should refrain from using the word love so often when we spoke and wrote each other. What made me chuckle, he signed his letter, “Love you always.”  Two weeks later I received a Christmas card inviting me down to Pensacola to visit, he missed me. The uncertainty of love and life born on the pages of my letters, now stored in the basement.

Definition of bad timing: Christmas 1984, I received cards from Corpus Christi, Texas; Pensacola, Florida; San Diego, California; Alamogordo, New Mexico and Norfolk, Virginia.  It seemed every man I had seriously dated or had secretly been in love with sent me a card letting me know they were thinking about me, asking how I was, they missed me and were hoping I would consider visiting them.  I never answered any of them; I was pregnant with my daughter.  At the time it was painful, but now it is almost comical at how ironic it all was.

The funniest letters, the best illustrators of my younger years, the numerous correspondences I received from friends; some asking for the latest dirt, others teasing me about the current love of my life.  Letters from California, New Mexico, Florida, Texas, Alabama, Pennsylvania, my friends dotted across the United States and some stationed overseas. Postcards from Christmas, spring and summer break ; August of 1982 I am sure when Mark wrote from summer cruise he had no idea 30 years later I would be once again be reading his postcard and saying out loud, “That’s right he bought a mustang”  and laughing at his predictions for 1st class year!  I smiled at the letter from California asking if the latest rumor was true, was I dating a certain Lieutenant in Norfolk.  The answer was neither yes nor no, I really didn’t know. There were dates asked and confirmed via the mail for sailboat rides, drinks at friends and beach volleyball games on the shores of Norfolk. They all made the summer of 1982 one of the most fun I ever had. It also added to my confusion; San Diego, Annapolis, or Norfolk, where did my heart really belong.

Many of my personal dilemmas were solved with the help of my friends via pen, paper and the post office. Other problems were compounded by them.  Letter dated 20 January 1982, “You can’t seriously consider liking him, his friend is a complete jackass and that means I would have to be nice to him. You know how hard that will be?”  One of the most wonderful letters was written to me the early morning of May 25, 1983 and left for me at the Flight’s house, it was  from a good friend Ed, “Just wanted to drop off a letter in case I didn’t get to a chance to talk to you again” (after graduation) He gave me advise on the rest of my college years, about a certain man in his company and ended his letter with; “You never know what will happen in life I wanted you to know I have never seen you as an “average” person, I have come to know a pretty extraordinary girl. Never sell yourself short. (Which you tend to do)  Please write or call if you are ever frustrated, pissed off. (Or happy as hell.) Don’t sweat it dude. Later D, it’s been fun. Going to miss you. “ Hellertown, PA I had forgotten his hometown but the address he left me, a place where they would always be able to forward his mail, triggered my memory.  A simple letter reminding me of all the wonderful friendships I had found at the Academy and lost through time.

There is such a beautiful creative process to letter writing.  No spellcheck, no backspace delete, what flows freely from your brain is transcribed on paper with no alterations or corrections.  Back in the day there were no icons; hearts and silly doodles were hand drawn then sent to a sweetheart.  When I was younger, I kept a writing pad in my nightstand, before going to bed I would use my knees as a desk and write to the people who meant the most to me. Then I would anxiously await their reply. At the time I didn’t realize with the help of my friends, I was documenting a history of me, my crazy confusing life.   

After reading my old letters, recognizing how truly magnificent they are; it now saddens me the vast majority of correspondence takes place today via email.  Letters that at one time would be stored in boxes are now kept in virtual folders. The delete button or a computer crash can erase every thought, every sentence, and every feeling, forgotten memories. As email takes over, there will be nothing tangible to hold on to.  I am afraid years from now there will be no new signatures to run my fingers over, no postmarks or return addresses to document where the correspondence came from in 2012,  no funny hearts and doodles to make me smile, there will be nothing to actually hold next to my heart that someone actually held in their hands from this century. Our history will become as impersonal and as sterile as the computer keyboard I am typing on now.

The latest trend seems to be book clubs. Everybody is anxious to meet and discuss “Fifty Shades of Grey” or the latest ‘in’ book. As I sit here with the box of remnants from my past next to me, I wonder, maybe a ‘new’ movement should be started; may I suggest a letter writing club?

1 comment:

  1. Ah, letters. I have probably written more letters than anyone I know, but only because I love(d) someone in jail. I have bundles of his responses tucked away in various places in my apartment.

    I also wrote my best friend nearly every day when he went away to NJ for the U.S. Coast Guard boot camp. That was more than ten years ago.

    Regardless of the reason, letters are neat.