[The Devil’s Gift is on vacation. Here’s a repost from October 27, 2019]
Last week during a round of decluttering I took the lid off a large box. It had sat unopened for nearly 40 years.
Funny how you can set something down meaning to get to it the next day, and then 40 years go by. A life can go by like that, I suppose, before you get to it.
The box was stuffed with letters. The earliest was postmarked 1967. I was 20 years old, a junior in college.
Funny, I don’t recall writing letters. Not one. Looking back I can’t see myself doing that—sitting down at a table, lifting a pen, writing on paper, folding it, tucking it in an envelope, sealing it, stamping it, and dropping it in a mailbox.
I just can’t see myself doing that. The box says I did just that.
Apparently, I sent a letter, got a letter, and put it in a shoe box. Sent another, got another, and put it in the box. Over and over again until I needed a bigger box. At the time I didn’t know I was curating a rare collection of a near extinct species.
Every time I moved, I took that box along—from Youngstown to Wheaton to Pasadena to Shepherdstown. I never re-read them. I just took them along, put them under my bed, or tucked them in the back of a closet like ashes in an urn. A memorial to friendships. A stone to touch.
In the box I found more than a hundred letters from old friends. Some deceased. I thought I’d read one, or two, or maybe three. I opened one, then another, and another, and another.
I slid down a rabbit hole into another world. We were all so very young then. Our nation hummed. The future was wide open. I read another. And one more. And one more.
I could have kept reading. I could have lingered. I could have stayed. The past is a luring refuge.
I put the lid back on and climbed out of the hole, back into this world, back into now.
I don’t know if I will ever touch those letters again. I know I won’t toss them out. After all, the box isn’t so big, and my closet has plenty of room. Besides, there’s still a whiff of perfume on a few of those letters.
Save those letters! I’ll always be grateful for the 300 or so letters my ancestors saved as they moved around in the early and mid 1800s. My sister Betsy and I found the first 150 in an old cracker tin, and I was able to purchase another 150 from eBay. As you know I used about a third of them for a book about my great-great grandparents: The Printer’s Kiss: The Life and Letters of a Civil War Newspaperman and His Family, published by Kent State Univ. Press as part of their Civil War in the North Series.
Even better to read the second time around, especially whiff of perfume.
Precious memories… captured moments in time. They are a balm…and that rabbit hole is a welcomed refuge I too have happened upon, from time to time.
Reading letters of women who lived here before, during and after the civil war has been a source of much understanding of their resilience, humor and deep compassion. Relatives who found them treasure their historic reflections…
A lost art…thank you for your story that brings a smile!🙏🏼
Pieces of your history. Precious. I kinda regret not holding onto some of my old letters. Mine would have had the fragrance of Jade East!
One of the blessings of a mobile, nomadic life is the shedding of anything that can be jettisoned for more room in a U-Haul. My mother whose mother died in a mental institution and whose father killed himself, used to say life is just bittersweet memories.
Huge gratitude to the Almighty for the blessing of living in the present.
I’ve often wonder how historians will chronicle our brief moment in time. Emails, texts, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook posts, Twitter? To name but a few conflab platforms. Good luck! They’re going to need it. More folks would find the time it takes to compose a letter in the old fashioned way would be time better spent if they took a few minutes of reflexion before they hit the send button. All folks mostly do any more is react, just jump and shout with hardly a thought about what they’re saying or what effect, either positive or negative, they may or may not have on any given recipient. It’s damn the consequences and full speed ahead this days. Often times we’re not so well served by half baked thoughts and ideas.
Yes, I too have a large box of saved cards and letters. I can’t let them go because every one has been written by someone who is a creative, witty, unique, unusual good writer or artist, a friend, family member, student. Each one is a treasure and being hand written, each one contains some essence of that person that is lost when typewriters and computers get in there to give us emails and other digital messages. Machines don’t give us that connection. Thanks for another great blog.
I distinctly remember writing letters. Usually on Friday nite. Always with a fountain pen. Some of the replies are somewhere in a box. Don’t recall any perfume – but maybe.
I was sent stateside for high school , respectively in 1967 and 1970 at 14, all my sister and i had to communicate with our parents in Africa was written material. Cards, those thin airmail letters,that was it. And the mail took weeks. no way to communicate anything of urgency. My cards were interestingly dated when unearthed and i dumped them and Mom sent some detailed recipes on those airmail forms. we kept those. The one positive note in this response to your last posting was that I was once at Baltimore harbor where all the third class mail went out on the boat from the company docks to liberia – such as the magazines. the alfred hitchcock mystery magazines. i found my parents magazine in a bin and wrote a hello in the front. like a note in a bottle tossed into the ocean. They did get it.
The letters, journals, poetry (!) – no one, I believed, would care. I chose to burn them all (with sage) so the smoke would carry it to the heavenlies.