Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Letters in a box

I’m on a mission to clean out our attic this month. From end to end, I plan to go through every single box – clothes, toys, books, art supplies, retired electronics, sports equipment – until I’ve sorted or purged or re-classified every last item. With the possible exception of my grandmother’s wedding dress, no more items will be allowed to wile away their days up below the eves unless they can justify their existence to me with a specific purpose.

But then I opened a box that brought me to a screeching halt. It was full of letters. More specifically, letters I’d received from friends between approximately the date of my high school graduation and my early 20’s. Letters from my college years, for the most part.

Some were from high school friends. Others were from friends I met during a summer-long European exchange program. A few were letters my college friends wrote to me while we were all off on summer break.

I read just one and then couldn’t bring myself to read any more of them. And now I don’t know what to do with them. Keep them even though I don’t expect to do any further re-reading? Stuff them into an even darker corner of the attic and let my children puzzle over their purpose decades from now? Or heft them with one good toss into the recycling bin at the transfer station?

It’s not that the letters represented any particularly bad memories. The opposite, really: those were good friends writing to me about generally great times. I was very happy during my college years, and for the most part I was every bit as aware then as I am now of how lucky I was to have so many contacts across the globe with whom to share thoughts and memories. I’m certain that every single one of those letters was a welcome sight in my mailbox. So why am I so resistant to look at them now?

Just that it was a different part of my life, one that I don’t really feel the need to revisit. The letter I opened was from a close high school friend who wrote to me during a study break her sophomore year in college, complaining about how difficult it was for her to get along with a mutual friend of ours and how much her boyfriend had let her down in the moral support department. It was hard to read even though there was nothing terribly serious about the situation she was describing. Even at the time she wrote it, she would have said it was mildly troublesome and not hugely problematic. Nonetheless, it resonated with me, and not in a particularly welcome way. Friends disappoint you when you’re in your late teens, but they do when you’re in your forties also. Maybe what was hard about it was not feeling like I could look back and say “Boy, have we changed! What a learning experience all of that was!” Habits and personality traits set in when we are teenagers, or even earlier, and remain with us as we settle into middle age, and in a way that’s what those letters seemed to be telling me.

Somewhat cosmically, the days that followed the discovery of the box seemed to be full of references to letters. A woman in her late 70’s asked me to help her draft a memoir based on letters her husband sent her when he was serving military duty overseas. A couple in their early 40’s whom I interviewed for an article laughed about the letters they sent each other as college students – “Back when people still wrote letters!” they remarked. And it’s true: my children will probably never have a box full of letters from their friends, unless they choose to print all their emails and text messages.

For now, I’ll keep this box of letters. Maybe someday I’ll feel more dispassionate about the emotions of the past and find it more amusing than disquieting to read through them. Maybe my children will find them interesting, though unlike the situation with the woman who showed me her husband’s letters from overseas, I don’t think they reveal much about American culture or history. They’re just the tale of my friends and me, having the same kinds of jokes, misunderstandings, bonding experiences and uncertainties about our lives that we do now.

So maybe that will seem useful at some point. Until then, back they go under the eaves, where they are welcome to stay, unlabeled, unclassified, and for the time being, untouched.

1 comment:

  1. I found a box just like this in my basement -- but I was delighted by it. Just because it was so interesting to revisit a long ago era in my life. I didn't read more than one or two; instead, I put it aside for when I'm old and infirm, at which point I'm hoping I have the time, and the interest, to spend a day in my past.