We were closing up the old home place, you see -- the resident matriarch (variously called Mother or Dossie) having downsized to a two-bedroom town house. It became necessary to tackle the closets, then the boxes on the closet shelves, then the contents of the boxes, and -- well, what's this now? Envelopes with stamps and postmarks and folded pieces of paper; artifacts from a time seemingly as distant as the Trojan war, when people actually "took pen in hand" to record the minutiae of daily existence.
It all needs to go. Of course. Such old stuff: Who could care? But -- well -- maybe just a peek. And so the past rises up again.
"We set a record here on the heat situation -- 112 degrees ... We had a late supper as usual, and Frank and Ann finally got in bed about 10 o'clock. It was too hot to go to bed any earlier, though."
"I am so relieved and glad that you enjoyed the trip by air. I know it must be a thrilling sight to see Washington from above."
"We have a nasty old armadillo that digs up our flower beds every night. I am going to have to spend the night up with a shotgun and get it if we have any flowers."
"I was very sorry to hear about your grandfather's death."
"Ann went to her swimming lesson this afternoon; she is still scared, I think, but she does not give up."
Inter alia. Inter a whole bunch more alia. It is all there, and if considerably less vivid than 40 or 50 years ago, it raises a point for reflection. That point would be the indispensability of the letter. We don't write each other anymore. We phone. We voice mail. We e-mail. This suffices -- at least for practical purposes, which seem sometimes to be all the purposes there are. A thought is conveyed and received. Is this not after all the point?
Er ... part of the point. I believe there might be more. The letter means (meant?) relationship. The writer could of course make a single, business-like point and let the matter drop right there, but to "take pen in hand" is to signify the start of a conversation -- a formal turning toward the person whose name follows the obligatory "Dear."
This conversation, this turning toward, could take multitudinous forms. It might concern that perennially beloved topic, the weather, or the activities of family members, or who was at the grocery store, or what movie the Palace Theater was playing, and was it any good? What the letter was about, finally, was connection: two people miles apart; no front-porch rocker to move in rhythm with the one positioned next it. Ah, but here -- on paper -- a remedy; the next best thing.
The letter in war, the letter in peace, brought comfort and familiarity. I'm proud of you. I miss you. I love you. Nor did the words fade. Not then. You folded your letter, reinserted it into the envelope. It might go into a drawer. It might go next to the heart. It was there to be read again and again -- a souvenir of the moment, a reminder; possibly to reappear years later, still speaking: "I hope you are having a nice time. I am sure it is hot there, too, so do not get tired and stay in the sun too much."
A letter was immortality with a three-cent stamp. No more of that here in the e-mail and voice-mail era. Easy in, easy out, is our motto. Delete, delete, delete.
Such was the prevailing doctrine when our domestic clean-out began: Toss, toss, toss.
Suddenly, doubts arise.
Real letters! Where do you find such in time to come? In a box? Likelier in a museum, all crinkly and filed away, covered with dark-brown scrawlings. Nobody, you see, writes letters anymore. It's delete, delete, delete ... excepting, maybe, we'll see, the contents of a brown Florsheim shoe box from a dusty shelf in a neglected closet.