Return to Sender: An Update on the Letter Project

05 Oct

Three months ago, I discussed my attempt to come to grips with one of my most challenging downsizing areas—decades of correspondence from friends and family. Since that time, I’ve read hundreds of letters and attempted to unite them with their writers. That part has been a source of joy and surprise.  I still have a way to go and have decided to leave the letters from my immediate family, now all deceased, for another time when my slow downsizing has otherwise come to a halt.

Here’s a sampling of their responses (or non-responses) and my reactions from non-family members, in no particular order.

  • 85-year-old daughter of one of my father’s colleagues: (Mentioned in my previous post.) Tracked down through her husband’s name, delighted to receive the 60+ letters from the father she felt she didn’t know well. Sent me a delicious box of gourmet chocolates as a thank-you!
  • Close friend and colleague from my teaching days in the 1970s: Last heard from in the mid-90s. Contact resulted in a long phone conversation. We’re now keeping in touch through email.
  • College boyfriend: Saw at a reunion last year. Doesn’t want his letters but would love choice excerpts that show his wit! (Haven’t read letters yet to see if I can comply.) Sent his sister letters written as a teenager. No reply.
  • Childhood friend met on an ocean liner at age 11: Corresponded through college and once in 1980. Very pleased to hear from me. Sent her 69 letters (my largest stash outside of family), complete with fabric samples from clothes she was sewing. From her letters, I learned it was she who sent me that charming little Steiff tiger I have on my bookshelf. Sent me photos of her beloved cats.
  • Friend from college, former post-college housemate: Do NOT send letters now but hang onto them until further notice.
  • Childhood friend from daycamp at age 9: Corresponded through college. Tracked down through the internet. Confirmed her address through a friend who attended the same college. Felt like I had a soulmate in her—someone who experienced things the same way I did. Several weeks after sending initial note by mail, received email. Can’t remember who I am, but asked what I was up to. Sent her long email. Crickets…… Don’t even know if she wants her many, very interesting letters written in a strong voice.
  • Close college friend, a housemate (even an actual roommate one year) for many years as young adults: We had a couple of amusing alter-egos that surfaced in our letters. Hadn’t been in touch for a couple of years. Called her. Finally read and sent off to her many, many long letters written during college and through the 80s during times when we were apart. Hope they arrived!! (No email address to confirm.)
  • One of my earliest childhood friends from age 5: We had developed an elaborate kingdom of bears together. Early letters build on that story. Lost track of her a few years after college. Internet search revealed she died in 2011. Bummed…..
  • Another teaching colleague: No amount of searching on the internet has revealed her whereabouts. Chucked letters after scanning a couple.
  • A third teaching colleague from the same school: Husband messaged me a couple of years ago to tell me she’d died (we had not been in touch for many years). Husband remarried not long after. Chucked letters…..
  • Housemate from the mid-70s: Not heard from since the 90s. Thought we might have had a falling out, but he seemed pleased to hear from me. Mutual friend gave me his address. No interest in seeing his letters, but we exchanged emails. Scanned a few letters for my archives.
  • Mutual friend of #11: Still in touch. At first thought, he wasn’t interested. Then, what the heck….Sent me my first word-processed letter in 1981 with a computer he paid thousands of dollars for. (Note: he did his graduate work in computer science.)
  • Friend from college: Still in touch. Wary of how he might have presented himself when he was younger, but okay, send the letters along. Heard back right away after he received them. Not as bad as he’d thought. It was a curious experience; not quite so wince-making as I had anticipated, but I was still a bit irritated by the writer: overlong sentences that seek to incorporate stream-of-consciousness allusions in all directions while maintaining grammatical impeccability, coupled with slightly ironical attempts at overviews of his life which manage to come across as both smug and a bit disingenuous.” 
  • Junior high school friend: Not in touch. Had seen six years ago at our school reunion. Zany letters that matched her personality written to me in summer after 8th or 9th grade. Response to letters: “What a hoot.” But the letters also prompted her to contact an old friend mentioned therein that she had forgotten.
  • Work colleague from 30 years ago: Still in touch. Was surprised at how long his letters were!
  • Secondary school friend: Better friends now than we were then. Three letters written from camp on cute stationery. “If it weren’t for the return address, I would swear those letters weren’t mine!” she said but was very appreciative of receiving them.
  • Secondary school friend: Not friends during school but became friends as adults. Still in touch. Intriguing to watch his own evolution through his letters as he matured and had a family of his own.
  • Housemate from the late 1970s: Still in touch. She was interested to note how much she had “mentally downsized” a former romantic relationship.
  • Close college friend, later co-owned a house with me: We parted ways after selling our home almost 25 years ago and haven’t been in contact since. Letters are prompting me to consider whether I want to make an effort to track him down.

Musings from the Letter Project:

  • Back then, we all had tiny handwriting, to fit a lot in so as to keep the postage costs low. Blue aerograms were particularly popular for overseas letters.
  • I’d forgotten how many people I used to write to---some people I couldn’t even remember being friends with (though I do remember them), and others I haven’t a clue who they are (but these are people from whom I only have a letter or two).
  • Some friends come and go; others stay in one’s life. What makes the difference?
  • Remarkably, some people have virtually no internet footprint.
  • Most people don’t save letters received. (At least, no one has offered to send me back my letters to them. No worries!! I kept carbon copies in the early years before computers…)
  • For personal letters, it was once considered somewhat gauche to type them, at least without explanation.
  • Adolescence and early adulthood were wild and often painful times. Oh, the heartache, the deceptions, the crazy journeys halfway across the country at a moment’s notice.
  • Letter writing is an art—some people practice the art, and others don’t. Some people just report their goings-on, and others share their feelings and attitudes. A very few treat letter-writing as a dialogue or conversation.
  • Some people have no interest in or are scared of revisiting their past.
  • We may think we remember things correctly, but most of us probably re-write our histories.
  • By not writing letters anymore, we’ve lost a connection to that history.
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