After my post a few days ago on letter writing, I was delighted this morning to see this article about a project called Power of the Letter that the U. S. Postal Service has launched in connection with the release of HBO’s miniseries, John Adams. The USPS project highlights the prolific exchange of letters between John and Abigail Adams throughout their courtship and marriage–1100 letters in all. Throughout the end of March, in a celebration of letter writing, the Postal Service will stamp all first class mail with a special Power of the Letter cancellation (see POTL link). While you’re at that site, you can order a free John Adams card, which they will send to you so that you will then send a letter to someone, postage paid (there are some pretty designs). You can also enter a contest to win a trip to Colonial Williamsburg.
It’s a brilliant marketing tie-in, and I happen to love the idea (are you surprised?). I might write a few letters this month just to get them stamped with that special postmark. Maybe I’ll send one to my children–they would love getting mail.
When I started thinking about some of the significant letters in my past, a few came to mind. There was the first one from Mr. H–which I opened right outside the post office in Woodbury, Connecticut–that melted me with the surprise of it, and its warmth.
And long before that letter, there was the one from my first real boyfriend, when I was 17. I remember the day it arrived. It was late August or early September, and I had spent the better part of the summer away from home working as a camp counselor and lifeguard.
That was where I met D. He worked as a counselor, too, and on the waterfront with me. We were together all summer, one of several couples that formed that summer from our constant interaction. That summer stands in my memory as one of my favorite. That may have something to do with it being my first time away from home for more than a few days, or from meeting D. Or because I loved our days off which we spent canoeing or picknicking or driving into town. Or, even, because he was the first guy I made out with. It’s hard to pick just one (though in retrospect, I might have to choose the making out).
The summer ended, and I went back home, where I could sense that Sue didn’t particularly like or trust my new confidence, though she eased up a bit on one or two rules. Before I went away, I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup. When I came home, I wore it (as I had all summer), and she didn’t forbid it anymore. She seemed to sense that I was becoming someone with whom she would have to reckon, and she was right, though the reckoning wouldn’t come for a couple more years.
From the beginning, Sue had forbidden us to go through the mail if we were asked to retrieve it from the mailbox. The reasons for this weren’t clear, but sometime during my senior year, in Sue’s jewelry box (yes, I was snooping), I found a stash of return addresses torn from letters or packages, all of them from our mother. Sue must not have wanted us to see them in the mail. But we also suspect that there was something or someone from her own past that she didn’t want us to know about.
We lived at the end of a long driveway that we shared with three other houses. The day that D’s first letter arrived, his return address peeked out from the other mail, taunting me for the length of that long walk. Why I didn’t just remove it, and keep it secret, escapes me. I took the mail into the house and handed it to Sue, but she didn’t look through it until I walked away. I waited, and waited longer. Finally, after at least two hours passed, she gave me the letter (remarkably, unopened).
I went to my room and read it. Among other things, D told me that on the day he wrote it, he heard our song come on the radio. That song? The Search Is Over by Survivor. (I only mention the name of the song so that I can post the video of it at the bottom of this post. Enjoy your trip back to 1985, and check out Jimi Jamison’s hair, not to mention the clothes. Admit it, you can still sing the lyrics. For any of you who were still in Pampers that year, enjoy your introduction to great 80’s ballads. Rock on.)
It was a good letter, as letters from teenaged boys go. I can still see his handwriting. I’m sure there were a few more letters from D, before the sweetness of our summer romance diminished through the winter, but I remember that one best. I don’t think I have it now, though I wish I did, just to know it was in a box somewhere, a relic of my younger self.
Letters possess qualities that can never be matched by email or whatever technology will offer us next. There’s something about the feel of paper in my hands, even if it’s just a piece of lined notebook paper, as D’s letter was. The sight of familiar (or new) handwriting becomes part of how we think or feel about the writer. Then, there’s even the scent of a letter, if the fancy of its writer was to spray it with perfume or cologne (you did it at least once, right?).
As light as they are, they have weight.
Most of all, there is nothing like a box of old letters, waiting for the day when they will be discovered again, during a move, or when cleaning out the top shelf of a closet. They can be from an old boyfriend, or college roommate, or from a much-loved aunt who has passed on. Often they are full of news and say nothing much. Those letters are significant, too. Yet others say everything. There is something important and timeless about words on a page that can’t be diminished or replaced by all the other ways we communicate. (Somehow, I don’t think that finding an old hard drive will have quite the same effect.)
So, write them. And keep the ones you’re lucky enough to receive.
In case you’re wondering, I still have that letter from Mr. H.