The weight of letters

by Jennifer on March 15, 2008

envelope-1.jpgAfter 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.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Kellan March 15, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Hi Jennifer – Hope you are having a good weekend – just wanted to say hi and I’ll see you soon. Kellan


HRH March 15, 2008 at 5:33 pm

How can I convince you, what you see is real… Yep, I can still sing it.

I worked four summers at camp (3 of them on waterfront). I even received a letter of two the following school year. Those letters were some of the highlights of my LIFE. I hadn’t thought of them in years. What a large impact a piece of notebook paper shoved into an envelope addressed to me holds. I remember writing out the words to “I ain’t missing you at all” to enclose in a reply. There is nothing better then an 80s ballad for nostalgia!


flutter March 15, 2008 at 9:27 pm

This is really so lovely. I love letters, just purely for being able to see which way someone’s writing slants and the pressure they use to put the pen to the paper. I think it paints such a vivid picture of the person.


Mrs. Chili March 16, 2008 at 4:34 am

I am SO sad that I don’t have HBO and am anxiously awaiting the release of the DVDs so I can watch the Adams series. I can’t wait.

Thank you for the links – I’m off to investigate (and to write a letter to my grandmother…)


Brenda March 16, 2008 at 6:19 am

D. D. I’m coming up totally blank on D!

MY “our song” (with B.) then was April Wine’s “Just Between You and Me,” though I must admit I couldn’t remember the name of the song (though once getting my memory jogged, do remember a lot of the words), and tried to look it up online, but couldn’t find anything to help me, so my husband (definitely NOT B.) helped me because his mind is filled with so much useless trivia! (Here’s how that conversation went: Me: S! What’s an early 80’s sappy April Wine song? S: “Just Between You and Me.” Can you believe he got it the first try? Silly)

I love the pretty letters idea by the post office. Of course I personally rebel against something not hand-made. (I’m certainly not so discriminating about what shows up in MY mailbox!) Because it’s a program to encourage letter-writing, which I highly favor, I may participate just in support of it! (How do you find all this stuff?)

And don’t you wonder what was going on in Sue’s mind for those 2 hours, and what made her finally decide to give the letter to you?


Crazycath March 16, 2008 at 7:22 am

Oh wow you have just taken me back and I have been 19 again for a while.
Thank you so much. That was great. (I still think I’m no older than 27 lol)


Daryl E March 16, 2008 at 7:37 am

Of course you still have that letter ..things like that are so important to us all our lives .. you reminded of something that happened to me .. when I was a kid having these broken heart charms were big .. you wore one half and your SO wore the other .. I bought a set and mailed one half to a boy I had a crush on. I misaddressed the letter and it was returned .. Dad or Mom saw it but Dad’s the one who sat me down and told me how I should never ever chase after a boy .. it was for the boy to chase after the girl .. I remember this tho it was so long ago I cant tell you the year and I remember all too well how dumb I thought Dad was to say that .. now I am not so sure he was dumb so much as trying to head off hurt for me .. hurt I had to experience in order to learn/grow .. sorry to ramble but your posts often do that to me .. 🙂


Crazycath March 16, 2008 at 8:21 am

Jennifer – you came over to mine just as I was editing! Typical! :0/
Thanks for visiting and your lovely comments.


ByJane March 16, 2008 at 12:38 pm

We should get some sort of letter-writing thingie going, by snail mail, using real stationary and nice pens. I’d do it!


david mcmahon March 16, 2008 at 2:18 pm

Thanks for the visit and the comment. Yes, I was wondering if you stil had the letter!

My mother was a great letter writer. But I can’t remember the last time I wrote one. I recently bought an aerogramme so my kids could see what it looked like!

Keep smiling



Melissa March 16, 2008 at 3:06 pm

that’s so cool that you still have the letter. I love that.


Tootsie Farklepants March 16, 2008 at 4:28 pm

When I was in Colonial Williamsburg during spring break last year they were filming at the governors mansion (or whatever the appropriate name is).

So sad that you found letters from your mom. You must have been dying to open them.


marlee March 16, 2008 at 5:46 pm

I have a letter that my sister wrote to my grandmother from Scotland, but my grandma never had the chance to open because she died before it arrived. I never had the heart to tell my sister that my grandma never read it so I’ve just kept it all these years. It’s never been opened.


Slow Panic March 16, 2008 at 5:53 pm

oh, i’m not sure, but i think i sang that song at a talent show in high school. ok, that is the saddest, most hilarious thing in the world.


liv March 16, 2008 at 6:34 pm

yeah, i have letters that i never sent sitting in their own stack, too. they seem like a pretty decent of reminder of where i once was. to my love i composed a very long letter, the weight of my hand pressing into the page. water has made some of the ink bleed, and i look at it, and know i am glad i didn’t send it.


JCK March 17, 2008 at 11:16 am

Letters are so powerful. I love the feel of it in my hands, the sound of the envelope tearing, the unfolding…. No, a hard drive will never be the same.

And…no diapers here, girl. I remember this song well!

Thanks for sharing another personal story.


Jenera March 17, 2008 at 2:31 pm

Oh what a beautiful post. My husband and I spent the first 5 or 6 months after we first met writing letters back and forth and it was the only way we got to know each other. I miss those days of checking the mail hoping for a letter from him. It was so much more intimate in my opinion.


Suzanne March 17, 2008 at 7:44 pm

Thank you for telling us about this marketing campaign from the Post Office. Since your last post, I’ve also been thinking about letter writing and I am pleased to report that it has inspired me to write a few more letters, even if they were just brief note cards.

There really is something intimate and special about a letter, it’s like an unexpected present. It’s tacticle, something that can be held as well as read.

Thank you for reminding all of us.



dragonfly April 1, 2008 at 6:42 am

I just have to add that I *married* the guy I fell for working at a summer camp!!


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