I find it hard to let go of letters. And the problem with that is, they pile up! Or DID! Telephones and email are closing in fast and may put an end to ‘correspondence’ as we knew it!
Where’d it start? It’s “the letter thing.” I could blame my blameless mother. I heard her say (referring to my Florida sister, “I guess they’re all OK, just too busy to write. She calls, regularly, but seems like a phone call’s not the same as a letter. By the time I’m out of the kitchen, I can’t remember much of what she said. With a letter, I can read it when I get it, put it in my pocket, then after lunch, go sit on the porch and read it again. Hear and see the words.” (She was talking about a daughter, as devoted, attentive as ever lived, but who didn’t happen to have “the letter thing.”)
A phone call to our mom was … “in one ear and out the other.” Grateful though she was to hear from us, a call lacked the tangible something to hold onto … to put in your pocket and read again on the porch. That’s me! But I harbored those genes before I heard my mother voice them. She didn’t know I was saving a letter from my sixth grade teacher (and the report card from the year I spent in her class)…or my grandmother’s letter explaining how many aprons she made last year and how she planned to spend the money she got for them on “some real nice shoes.”
Or the type-written ones from my daring, far-off Aunt who, having learned to type, took a train from Birmingham to New York and wrote to RFD mail boxes all over Lowndes County. She was a legal secretary, see, and could whip them up “quick while the boss is out to lunch.” They came by air from New York, Miami, or across the continent in Los Angeles! She liked sneaking in those lunch hour letters, you could tell, and admonished me, “on subway trips to teach those little children … keep a note pad in your purse along with your apple and the lesson plans.”
There was a letter I wrote but never mailed … to Amelia Earhart. It was stamped and ready to mail the hour she reappeared. I imagined her picture in the paper, frail of frame, with white, white wind-blown hair, but dressed in the flying gear she’d worn at take-off from … nobody knew for sure. But a day came when I desperately needed a stamp for a letter to a guy in the Marines. I steamed off Ameila’s tamp … and … finally, guiltily, let her letter languish, then go.
Then there are my uncle’s letters… Don’t think ‘shoebox’ full, think boot box, size 12! They’re neatly arranged therein, on the floor of the hall closet where you stub your toe when reaching for a hanger. They’re a treasure of family lore, but for whom? For what?
For touching the palsied hands that wrote of shelling black-eyed peas, of peeling apples to bake for the family reunion … written at the kitchen table, after the deacon’s meeting. They’re rich, as well, with his memories of growing up on the farm (where in years to come I’d live too.), of running the cotton seed distributer, sun-up to sun-down, 50 cents for the day, but $7 for the week leading the singing for the Methodists’ revival … (“and some mighty fine eating to boot.”)
And at the time, he’d just learned to drive. I was 4 and spending the night at that farm on Highway 12 without my mother! When homesick tears became wails, my grandfather shook him awake. “Looks like you’ll have to crank up the car and take a crying child home.” It was way on into the night, but I was wrapped in a quilt and carted off to Caledonia in the Model A Ford. To stop my crying, my dashing teenage uncle suggested I “look up at the night sky, count the stars and tell me how many’s up there.” (In truth, that story didn’t come in a letter, rather as we sat talking in the Nursing Home when his hands could no longer write.)
He had six nieces and three nephews, but no children of his own. He was careful in the salutations, to be specific … “Dear niece who wrote me last week from New York”; “To the oldest of six smart nieces”; “To the niece who’s partial to Oscar Mayer wieners.” Just a sampling, and knowing him you’d hear him chuckle as he composed those opening lines. When writing to me in the Peace Corps, Fiji, he began with “Bula”! (a general, all around greeting), then “Bula! To the niece who sent the postcard showing naked men in grass skirts!” He’d move then to details of doctor’s appointments, frozen pipes or who visited whom at Thanksgiving. Now I ask you, how can you relegate letters by those dear hands to the shredder at UPS!?
Regarding another letter exchange: A near 20-year correspondence, (averaging two letters per month puts it close to 400?), from a Caledonia friend covering the town’s social and commercial life 1997-2017. It’s all there … the new Dollar General, the first of Billy Lawrence’s tomatoes, the new preacher, names of fabrics from which we sewed Summer dresses for church at Border Springs, the Senior Banquet, where to eat (or not) between Columbus and Aliceville, then the last of Billy Lawrence’s tomatoes). That bulging collection had a box all its own. When she died, I sent them to her last address on Main Street, as though, unlike the others, they still had a home there.
And these from a friend, (Arkansas-born but “at home” only in Paris), eking out a living while studying art, and squeezing thousands of words into a weightless packet of pate blue airmail paper.
So that’s where it stands … bundles in rubber bands, in chronological order, or not; envelopes missing, or not; labeled as to special content, or not; but for whom? For me! The addresses in familiar handwriting say so! I feel their closeness and place them back in the box. My housekeeper comes today and though she’s careful not to disturb my clutter, she’ll want to dust so…
But email? I’m fairly adept at reply, send and delete, but there’s no option for “go sit on the porch and read it again.”
Marion Whitley, a Caledonia native, lives in Manhattan where she reads, writes and remembers. Her email address is Whijmar8@aol.com.