I’ve been wanting to write you a letter …
I’ve been wanting to write you a letter for quite a while, but it’s taken me longer than expected/than it normally does for me to sort out exactly what I wanted to say to you…”
I read Eleanor Roosevelt’s love letters this morning. Well, at least snippets of them. Wife to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor was a reformist and champion for women’s equality in her role as first lady — and the longest serving American first lady. Known for her public persona, her personal life has been a topic of much discussion since the discovery of a batch of her letters nearly four decades ago and the resulting publication of the book, Empty Without You.
In the book, author Rodger Streitmatter chronicles 300 letters written between Eleanor and journalist Lorena Hickok, a woman, over a 30 year period. The letters are intimate, some of them salacious, all of them doing more that suggesting at the secret romantic relationship the two women shared. By the time the letters were discovered in 1978, the women had exchanged over 3,500 letters.
I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.
— Excerpt from Eleanor’s letters to Lorena
The letters confirm what had only been rumored; a) that the First Lady had extramarital lovers and b) that she was attracted to women. Reading through them is a reminder of the ephemeralness of love no matter how eternal it seems. It is bittersweet. It is longing interspersed with joy. It is a love gone.
But reading Eleanor’s letters reminded me of other letters, like Victor Ehikhamenor’s. The ones the Nigerian author recalls writing to the illustrious girls of his hometown as a teenager in rural Nigeria. He swears, now, that the letters helped him craft his writing skills. Allowing him to write more recent satirical love letters like the one to his “sweet valentine,” in which he croons:
My dear love,
I have no other way of calling you but by the very name that bring great men to their knees. Whenever it’s Valentine, you make me act like drunk African head of state and randy French president… You smell like fresh mint Abuja dollars withdrawn from Central Bank during a ruling party’s national convention…When we watch Nollywood movies together, you make Genevieve and Omotola look like village fish sellers. Your luminous skin makes Lupita look like a street beggar in Nairobi.
But as all love letters must do, Eleanor’s letters mostly led me to think of my own. The ones I have written to the people and the places I have fallen in and out of love with. Fumbling their richness, feeling how alive they felt in my hands. I thought of all the drawers, shoe boxes, journals, secret cubbies and mattresses that dot this city, teeming with an abundance of simple words on paper.
My own drawer is lighter these days. There are fewer notes, cards, hurriedly written sticky-notes and four page letters that hug its insides. After all, how many lovers can live side by side in that drawer you never open? Lovers are known to get jealous, even on paper. But what does it mean for the letters we hold onto, like Lorena held onto Eleanor’s letters? The ones that bear that once familiar handwriting, our names and addresses tacked to one corner, and our hearts wrapped around their edges.
In that drawer, tucked alongside the letters my niece wrote me while I was on the road traveling, the postcards from friends, and the birthday cards from my mother are envelopes I cannot open. Cards that frighten me with their honesty. And a journal filled with a 1,221 mile-longing shuffled from one lover’s mailbox to another’s. These, are what interest me the most, these sheets of paper we cannot bear to revisit, or let go of, as they recite our past. The letters we are unable to face because they bear the uncanniest resemblance to our failures in that most necessary of needs; love.
“This is where I leave you for now. I hope it doesn’t take as long for you to reply as it did for me to begin.
Letter from a former lover circa 2015