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.
Some twenty five years ago I was sitting in the football stadium at Blacksburg enduring a commencement speech that was a typical huff and puff when a statement hung in the air… “our memories become our strength.”
And your memory of that proves the point. Nice. I also heard that without memories there is no “self.”
I have a lot of those skeletons both physical and mental that appear at unexpected times.
I hope those unexpected appearances are more soothing than scary. Walk on brother. You’re surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses.”
Boy, I had the same experience a couple of weeks ago. Did you keep copies of the ones you wrote? I did, and to read them is the strangest experience. Life is happening again in real time. Mussed-up details of past events get corrected. And then you hear the old voices of friends and relations–some, as you said, now gone, other dead or estranged or merely having moved along. I’m glad you’re not throwing away your letters, as someday you may need them just to prove to yourself that stuff did happen, and that certain feelings were, in fact, real.
I didn’t make copies. Never occurred to me. (What prompted you to do so?) Most were handwritten so that would have meant photocopying and back then that was impractical. So, yes, it’s weird “hearing” one side of a two way conversation from 40 years ago.
Next box…old journals? That’s the rabbit hole I periodically go down. What to do with all this history before we die?
Get famous. Then someone else will collect, edit, and make a movie of your life. Your grandchildren will be rich!
Thanks for a great story I loved it
Randy, I read this story just now. Rather amazing that last week I found and re-read after many years the letters my mother and father wrote to each other during the war. Part of the time she was pregnant with me, so my incipient self did warrant mention from time to time. The letters are sweet, loving and beautiful. My plan is to have them duplicated for my kids (for a special Christmas gift) who know my father only from pictures and stories — he died when I was 15. Unfortunately I also found letters I wrote to my mother from college … not so enchanting!