all of the selves we Have ever been
I open my mailbox to a surprise.
Inside is an actual letter. It is not from a credit card company, the IRS, or Social Security; it is from a friend. Paper mail is such a rare and treasured find in the digital age, especially during a pandemic, a kind of people-famine.
I do not need to look at the return address. The handwriting is instantly recognizable. Though I’ve known my friend for 44 years, her handwriting has never changed. Each letter of the alphabet maintains its distinctive form with wide spaces between the words. The printing is confident and cheerful, the optimistic qualities I have grown to love and admire in my old friend. Having her handwriting on the paper before me is like having her here with me now.
Filled with delight and anticipation, I do not wait to get inside my apartment before sliding my finger under the flap and tearing open the envelope. Her note to me is brief—her usual style—and contains an enclosure of an article she thought might interest me. And it does.
Her letter gets me thinking, and I go to another container, a weary, sagging cardboard box in my storage closet. I lift the worn flaps and gather up a messy pile of aged cards and letters, the spirits of people loved asleep on a shelf. I gently begin to awaken them.
There is an index card that contains the handwriting of my cousin Marcia. The card describes the town in Lebanon from which my grandparents came. My cousin names the place where our roots originate, hers and mine. We are branches on the same tree. The tip of her branch has touched heaven, and yet the sturdy tree with all of its branches ties us both to earth, to each other, and to that homeland so far away. It is the only sample of Marcia’s handwriting that I possess, making it seem as exotic as the place it describes.
Next in the pile is my own handwriting on a note from teenage-me to my Aunt Lillie. The note was returned to me after Lillie’s death many years ago. The content recalls the weeks of a summer spent in my Aunt Lillie’s home. In a sweet, youthful penmanship, I see my self-conscious sixteen-year-old self, and I am reminded of the stresses and struggles of those teen years. The note is like a magical looking glass through which I can see the two of us sitting in the living room drinking Diet Pepsi, watching soap operas, Johnny Carson, and old Tammy movies.
I find a short note from my father. The words are neatly printed in blue. The letters are all in caps: DEAR LIL...LOVE DAD. In the same envelope is an aged letter my father wrote to his mother when he was a teen. The letter is written in an unfamiliar, back-handed cursive. The contents and the signature assure me that the letter was written by my father, and yet it feels like the work of a stranger. It does not belong to MY DAD. This find reminds me that my father was a stranger to me and to himself for much of my life.
There are a series of letters from my younger brother. Each recounts a different phase in his personal development as well as the nature of our bond. Each letter chronicles the dynamics in our changing family story. I gasp at how similar my brother’s handwriting is to that of my son. In the years since my brother’s early and unexpected death, more of him has emerged in my own child. I am reminded that the people we love come back to us in the most remarkable ways.
There are so many other letters in the box, so many memories and pieces of myself and others. The news is a mixture of happy and sad. There is a letter from my other-mother, Jane, congratulating me on my engagement and offering motherly advice. There are notes from my artistic sister-in-law that contain photos of my niece and nephew. Letters from friends inform me of job losses, divorces and the deaths of parents and partners. A deeper pile chronicles my life as a mother and the growth of my children as their crude printing and misspellings morph into steady, fluid, adult script. Once again, I drink up all of the happy birthday and Mother’s Day wishes. Their great pride and their small, beaming faces return to me through this magic looking glass.
The content of each card and note brings back the life I shared with others. The handwriting brings back the emotion. Something flowed through each writer’s hand, into the pen, onto the paper, and into my home and my heart like a long and precious thread. If I follow it, the thread will lead me back to them, from that long-ago place to wherever they are now, as though they have been hiding there, waiting for me to find them.
We always assumed there would be more. More time. More mail. We did not anticipate the loss of familiar penmanship in a digital age. Life was full. We had no reason to imagine that days might come when we would hang onto our loved ones by a long and precious thread formed from the silk of their handwriting.
On some ordinary day long ago, I opened my mailbox and found a card or a letter. As it sat on my desk, my nightstand, or my kitchen counter, I left it there. And then one day, for reasons unknown, instead of tossing it into the trashcan or the shredder, I moved the letter to a repository, a weary, sagging cardboard box on a shelf in my storage closet. The years passed, and with time and under the weight and pressures of life, as coal becomes diamonds, the mail turned to treasure, the handwriting to silk and a long and precious thread.