This stack is just skimmed off the top.
They date from about 1979 to 1994--the year I moved to the Cities. There are letters from people I no longer remember--who are these Swedes I was corresponding with? Or the Coffin family in Finland? Who is this military woman named Sue? Who is Julie, this journalist in Texas?
There are also letters from people I have fallen out of touch with--Tom, the copy editor who became a minister, and Tim, one of my brother's best friends who I met during a visit to Seattle and with whom I fell into a correspondence of many years. He liked to write letters as much as I did, I think, and sent four and five and six-page typewritten epistles from his journeys around the world. (He was a cook in the merchant marine.) He was one of the few people who could keep up with my flurry of words.
There were letters from people I am still close to, and letters from people long gone--my father, my sister, my cousin. A few awkward and sad love letters; the ones from the guy whose heart I broke now break my heart. (Gad, I was heartless.) The one from the guy who dumped me (but did not break my heart) reminded me why we were not well-suited to begin with. (Note: If you are going to write a love letter to someone, the phrase "piece of shit"--even used in reference to an apartment and not to the recipient of the letter--does destroy the mood.)
The most interesting letters, though, were from my family. My family! Oh, so many letters! They wrote most often when they were traveling, because, of course, there was no e-mail, and long-distance phone calls were expensive, and there was no other way to stay in touch. And so my parents wrote me many, many letters during their travels, especially during their extended trip to Switzerland and England during my father's sabbatical. He was to deliver a talk at the university in Nottingham, but he was informed of this only after he had left the country. So he sent off a rather desperate letter asking me to xerox some articles he had written and mail them immediately to him in Switzerland so he could prepare.
Apparently I did, because the next three letters were filled with gratitud.e ("His talk is saved! Thanks to you!" my mother wrote.)
The box was so full it barely closed. This is not all of the letters--the ones I had already
read were stacked on the table when I took this picture.
read were stacked on the table when I took this picture.
My brothers wrote from their trip around the world in 1979 or whenever it was--one letter was scrawled on thin stationery from a hotel in China. "We are in Peking," my brother wrote. "Only here they pronounce it 'bay-zhing.' "
There were letters from siblings in college and letters from friends who were adrift, trying to find their place in the world. (And I am happy to report that they all eventually did.) My most serious brother, I realized reading these letters, has a wonderful, subtle sense of humor when he writes. I'd forgotten that.
A friend with a new baby wrote of intense sleep-deprivation but also about how wonderful and beautiful and advanced her baby was.
There's a letter from my favorite college professor, apparently written in response to a fan letter I wrote him after taking a class. (What a geek I was! Who writes fan letters to their teachers?)
And all of these letters were written just to me, printed or scrawled or occasionally typed, stuffed into hand-addressed envelopes, sometimes with photographs or newspaper clippings, or money or checks, and then sealed up and sent off, decked out in colorful stamps and sometimes with little notes scrawled on the back of the envelope after it was closed up. ("You and I are the only people I know who LOVE green beans!" one sister wrote.)
Much has been written, of course, about the demise of the letter, how e-mail has replaced it almost entirely. After discovering this box, I asked some friends if they found e-mail to be a worthy substitute. Everyone saw it as a trade-off: e-mail is faster. It's free. It's more like a conversation--you can dash off one sentence in response to something, which would seem odd and terse in letter form. It doesn't have to be crafted as beautifully as a letter, which removes some of the pressure.
But the intimacy of letters is gone. Yes, you can attach jpgs or links to an e-mail, but that doesn't have the same friendly warmth of tucking in a story clipped from the newspaper. (Of course, with newspapers on the wane, we might some day not have them around to tuck into letters anyway.) Or, as some of my correspondents did, flyers from events they had attended or brochures from a trip or other odd things.
Is there a way to bring back letter-writing? Another friend and I talked about that briefly last week and we agreed that it seems nearly impossible. The feel of receiving a letter has changed, I think. It's now almost twee, self-conscious. We still love getting letters, but we are wary: We're not quite sure what it means, to get a letter. Why did they write? Why didn't they just e-mail? We're not quite sure if we have to respond by letter, or if sending an e-mail would be OK. And so, sometimes, we don't respond at all. Letters now confuse us.
I had made a new year's resolution to write a letter a week, which I quickly modified to a letter a month after the first week of January passed without my writing anything. I have not met the letter a month quota, either. In five months I have written two, I think, both to my nephew in Seattle.
If writing letters seems daunting and weird to me--I who, as a child, once requested "a year's supply of stamps" as a Christmas present--then there's not much hope. If I don't write letters, who will?