A dear pen pal of years gone by, someone to whom I’ve not written a letter in years, asked me recently if I’d like to rekindle our letter writing. Twenty years ago, before email and texting, we sent postcards to each other each week. For about three years.
I am embarrassed that I haven’t written a letter to anyone in years.
During high school, my mother left me notes around the house. Just short “love you!” tucked into a book I was reading, or “have a good day” at my place at the kitchen table. Sometimes she left for work before we could talk. Other days, I was being a real teenage jerk, but her notes told me despite my tantrums, home was always a good place to be.
Through college my mother wrote me letters. Long letters about what Dad was planting in the garden, or how their last trip was. What the people at work were doing or the house across the street being sold. She always wrote something sort of cryptic, like, “Jennifer,” (where I’d stop to roll my eyes. No one calls me that.) “You are a talented woman with so much to offer the world. Your dad and I pray that you grow into your whole being.” Or something like that.
Maybe other readers don’t think that’s cryptic. Maybe it seems fairly simple. But mothers and daughters have a tenuous relationship, in my experience. When I read letters from my mother, I grasped for the hidden meaning. “What does that mean?” I’d ask as I read.
Her subtext was usually:
I love you.
Yesterday, I pulled out a card from a stack I’d been given, notes with prints of Tulsa’s most famous spots—yes, Tulsa has famous spots—to write my first letter. I filled my favorite fountain pen with purple ink, my favorite color. I thought about Abigail Adams, whose letters to her husband are famous for the intimate look at their romance and friendship. I thought of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, erstwhile enemies who became penpals in late life. They wrote lengthy letters about their hopes for this grand experiment. They talked of politics and the farming life.
I imagined our letters would be similar in scope and tone; I was profoundly underimpressed. Because I do not see my friend regularly, though we connect online, I don’t know the daily frustrations on her mind today. I don’t know how the kids’ school years went or how she and her husband are doing with that one thing they were talking about. And she doesn’t know mine.
My letter is essentially a rough outline of what I hope to fill in over time: work, kids, life, marriage, faith. As if I’m sending her advance warning of the chaos that will ensue. And I will. I will write a longer letter, with more and better details. I will fill her in on the one most pressing issue on my mind, and the peripherals that distract me.
Letters are a heart on a page. They take time and energy and thought. One doesn’t just lay it all out there, gore and all in the first stab. We are going to flex our writing and thinking and communicating muscles and rekindle our lost ritual, a lost art and a more lasting relationship between us.
Do you write letters?