When my son Devin was just a squirt, he was figuring out the difference between male and female (the TERMS - he was having a hard time keeping them straight). He would use the words in context and then kind of look at me to see if he had them right. “That female is wearing a scarf,” he would remark casually as we were driving down the road. “That is a male cardinal,” he would observe looking out the window at the bright red bird.
It so happened that our letter carrier was a young woman. She was always friendly and outgoing with Devin as almost everyone was. He was a pretty engaging child. One day as we were out walking in the summer and we saw the postal jeep approaching, he took off running toward her shouting, “Look daddy, it’s the mail female!”
Remember when going to the mailbox was a pleasure? Probably not if you are under about 35. But back in the day, mail was often used for written correspondence. Hard to believe, I know, but the US MAIL was the way we communicated when we were long distance from a loved one (a term probably unfamiliar to you thirty-five-and-unders). Rather than spend a few bucks on a long-distance call, we would often pick up a pen and paper and write down our thoughts, carefully crafting our words, making the effort to record our sentiments clearly and concisely. A hand written letter was a work of art for some of us. I remember getting letters from my mom all throughout my life. I treasure those artifacts.
She would often go on about the weather, what birds she had spotted, what was happening in the lives of old family friends. She would write eloquently about the changing seasons, what books she had read lately, perhaps a recipe she had tried. It was just life, you know. And I would have to open an envelope that she had licked shut, after she had written my address on it, after finding a stamp and walking it out to the mailbox and putting the flag up. And I was left with a piece of paper in my hand with her neat, tight cursive on it. Something she had touched. Something she had breathed life into.
It is a sweet gift to receive a letter. While we are used to receiving bills and notifications, ads and announcements, a letter is something altogether different. It is a little piece of who you are, what you are thinking, events that shape your current self. It is deeply personal; there is not another one like it in all the world. It is like a fingerprint. It is something that starts as a blank piece of paper, an empty vessel waiting to be filled up with news and emotions, little glimpses into who we are and what is important to us.
Sure, it would be so much easier and much more immediate to email, or text, or Facebook, or tweet. And it is nice to hear someone’s voice on the phone – although even phone conversations are becoming more rare.
Facetime is cool. Once while I was painting a room in our home, I heard a voice from my pocket calling my name… “Tim? Tim!” It was my nephew Mike. I had never even used Facetime before, had no idea it was even on my newfangled phone. Turns out I had butt-facetimed him. After wiping the paint from my hands, we had a long face-to-face chat. It was cool. Like Dick Tracy with his two-way wrist radio or something.
But none of these things equals the effort of writing a letter to a loved one. How are you doing? Never sounds so sincere when you are in conversation, right? It comes off as a single time-filling word… How-you-doin’? Or Hi-how-are-ya? And the response is equally vacant. Fineyou? But it is not the same with a letter. Dear Mom and Dad means something entirely different than the often hollow ‘Sup?
The best letters are often written sort stream of consciousness style. You sit and think of nothing and let what comes, come. It doesn’t have to be lyrical, just you. You can turn from something funny to something tragic… We had to put old Sasha to sleep. She was a good old pal. I remember the way she loved the kids when they were all puppies together… I opened the bluebird house the other day and saw a tiny little flying squirrel crammed into the corner, making himself as small as he possibly could, his big eyes bulging with fright… It sure was hard to say goodbye to my third graders as they left the classroom on that last day of school. A part of me went with them. The older I get the harder it is to say farewell to my young friends… You won’t believe how great Heidi’s new book is. Seems like that brain tumor left her even more brilliant than she was before…
These are all things I would have written to my mom if she were around. And she would have appreciated them. And she would have written back in her own time. And there would be this thread of conversation out there, this ongoing connection over time, a delayed exchange of ideas and feelings that made coming home and going to the mailbox something to look forward to.
My old mom was the last one to write letters to me. Sometimes we would speak on the phone after she had written one and before it arrived in our mailbox. “I don’t want to talk about that,” she would say from time to time, “You’ll read that when you get my letter.” And I waited the two or three days to open that envelope that she had licked shut and read those precious words that she had put on that page her very self. And when I was finished reading that letter, I would most likely read it again. And maybe again. And maybe I’d share a few well-chosen words with Heidi before stashing it away in my rubber-banded stack, waiting for a day, years later, when I would return to that stack and reread those precious thoughts.
And those words would bring me back to a place and time like nothing else ever could. Who says you can't go home again?