Why I Keep Letters

Perhaps I intuitively understood from an early age that my life would encompass loss. People, places, things. Whatever the case, when I was sent a letter from say my great-grandfather, Bompa, I kept it. From my grandmother in England, her missives were read, then put in a drawer. From my American friends once we moved to England, letters arrived to let me know what was going on in my native country and to let me know even as the years passed I was still missed. Those went in my top drawer. My Norwegian grandmother never wrote me. Her English wasn’t very good. But, I remember she visited Italy once and sent me a rosary. (It was made of a chain with rosaries of mother of pearl–from that trip.) I took a lot of pains to open the chain with pliers, put it around my neck and pinched the chain link closed so that I could wear it to school. Everyone there thought it was weird. You don’t wear a rosary, I was told. I undid it again at the end of the day and regretfully put it in my jewelry box where it has remained ever since–a sort of perennial love jewelry letter–which blooms every time I open the box.

But, I am digressing. There were the adventures of being a military policeman in the very north of Norway captured in pen from my Norwegian boyfriend, which buoyed me up amidst a disintegrating family when I was still living in England. Reassuring letters arrived from my first real American boyfriend back in America when we were on different educational plans in college. Unlike me, he was attending college in the summer, and the reassurance he offered me was because he knew I was not tolerating our separation well. Then years later when I was poor, I received in the mail a hand-drawn advertisement–a birthday invitation–for a ski holiday in Zermatt, Switzerland from a man who was rich. Later still, there was the E.E. Cummings poem that came via post thirteen blocks from west 72nd street to west 85th in NYC from a man I had just met that pretty much sold me on him before I knew one real thing about him. Three of these boyfriends turned into husbands, and I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that words on paper had something to do with the outcomes.

Words in letters are living breathing spirits to me. Or can be. You can so easily return to them and read the intent of the person who wrote them: A well meaning great-grandfather to his great-granddaughter, a jealous sister to a jealous sister, a father who abandoned his family to his bereft daughter, a troubled son to his guilty mother, a boyfriend who forgave and never forgot. When the great-grandfather, grandmothers, father and mother, lovers and husbands are gone, the letters are still there. When there has been a rift, forgiveness can still take place. Opened, each one is a little piece of history in the making. For a few moments, each one gives me back these people and a piece of myself is restored.