Not long ago I found a box filled with letters and greeting cards. Some were from nearly 40 years ago; a few remained from my childhood. When I opened the box, I expected to find love letters my husband and I had exchanged before we became engaged. We were separated by more than 1,000 miles before cell phones existed, so writing letters was the lifeline keeping our love alive. These alone would have been more than I could have hoped to discover, but as I sorted through the box I found many more letters written by family members and friends. Over the years I had forgotten about the letters, and I was overwhelmed by the unexpected gift of finding something from the past that so clearly told the story of who I once was.
Elated to hold each of the artifacts from those who had been guiding forces in my life, I made piles until they took over every flat surface in my kitchen. Surrounding the letters written by two young lovers who would face and overcome unknown challenges in the many years that followed were other types of love letters. One pile reflected the love a mother had for her newlywed daughter. Another showed the close bond between sisters separated in age by 13 years and in distance by 3,000 miles. Others echoed a connection between friends, those who pursued different goals and paths, and a few who became lifelong allies.
After the box was empty, I organized each pile according to date, intending to read each story from beginning to end. Some stacks were small, consisting of only a few items. Some were so high the pile slid and spread across where it stood, unable to form a pillar. Among the many piles lay a lone letter written by a busy young working mother, my sister-in-law who succumbed to colon cancer in 2012. Hers was a lighthearted newsy letter that included a picture of my then one-year-old niece who is now 37. It described the day-to-day antics of a toddler, and in each line the joy with which those words had been written was alive. Newly expecting myself at the time I had received the letter, my sister-in-law had given me a brief glimpse of my own future.
Her letter was not the only one written by a loved one who is gone. There were letters from both of my husband’s grandmothers and his father, and letters from my mother. All held indelible words that traveled from the past to remind me love never dies. I have often said if my mother had been born during a time when her life was not limited to being a wife and mother, she would have preferred to pursue a career, never marrying or having children. She was not particularly affectionate, nor did she help me navigate through the turmoil of growing up. I learned by observing the relationships my friends had with their mothers my own was detached from me. We were very different, and I have wondered many times throughout my adult life if she was truly capable of love. In her letters I found an answer.
In my mother’s words of “If you get lonesome, call reverse;” “Send me a picture of you with that little tummy;” “Sitting here thinking of you;” “Don’t worry, I will be there when the baby is due;” her love came through in a way it never had. And, indeed she had come just before our son was born. She had never been much of a traveler, but she flew across the country by herself to be with me. Reading her letters helped me remember love is expressed in many ways. Some may find it easier to show than others, but that doesn’t mean it is absent.
I haven’t made my way though all of the piles, yet. I want to savor each word from those bygone days. I want to trace my fingers over the handwriting of each letter. I want to smile to myself at the happy memories they bring to mind. Of course, I will cry for what I have lost, but the letters will comfort me. Because of them I have something tangible to connect me with those I will always love.
Note: Please know if you take the time to write a letter to me, or send a card with a short note, I will keep it forever. Our connection with others is one of the few things worth holding onto in life.