The Things We Used to Say in the Letters We Used to Write
My friend and I recently decided to start writing letters again. The kind that involve a pen and paper and dropping a thin rectangle into a blue box on the sidewalk.
Our optimistic effort to roll our communications back to the pre-Facebook Age stemmed from a recent attack of nostalgia that had me rummaging through cards and letters mailed back when it was perfectly normal to scrawl out a note to a friend while waiting for the subway or trying to stay awake in organic chem.
Some of the letters were surprisingly hefty, the kind that require at least one extra stamp and almost demand that the recipient pour a glass of wine before digging in. The lined notebook pages bled with scribbled tales of long-forgotten boyfriends, parental conflicts and other glimpses into our not-yet-Instagrammable lives.
As I sifted through the pages, I felt a pang of sadness that we wouldn’t have any of these tangible memories from the current chapter of our lives. After all, who has time to write an entire letter when there’s so much tapping and swiping to be done? And in the era of tl;dr who has the minutes it would take to look at all those words? My friends would probably prefer that I just “like” something to let them know I’m thinking of them, right?
Don’t get me wrong; I have no plans to trade in my iPhone for a stack of stationery. It’s kind of the coolest thing ever that my friend can iMessage me a video of her baby proudly exercising his newfound walking skills across the kitchen floor. But I also want to sit on the floor a decade from now and open a box and physically touch crinkled, ink-smeared paper that reminds me of that moment. (And if you tell me to just screenshot text messages or save stuff in the cloud, I will beat you mercilessly with the nine-page letter that same friend mailed to the smoke-filled Y in Boston where I lived after high school.)
Admittedly, I can be overly nostalgic. I was horrified to recently learn that my mom had thrown out a papier-mache bassett hound I made for a fifth-grade book report, so it would be fair to say that perhaps I get too attached to things. (His name was Huey, and he was shoebox-sized with proportionate ears.) But it pains me a little that my teenage cousin will never pull that box from atop a shelf in her closet and see a former version of herself reflected in the faded handwriting of a friend. (Is there an app for that?)
I know this may seem silly to those who grew up in a world of hashtags and status updates. Saving words and pictures forever is basically the opposite of Snapchat; I get that. But trust me, once you’re old enough to have “a past,” you’ll want to be able to look back on it. And once enough years have gone by to make you truly appreciate lifelong friends—the ones who not only accept that you’re crazy but remember what made you that way—you’ll want to remember the silliness and heartbreak you’ve shared along the way.
A few months ago, distraught over the death of a childhood friend and weighed down with guilt over losing touch years before, I began sifting through mementos, looking for anything that would represent the person who existed before she was a body identified by dental records in a police press release. Before I had become so “busy” with my own life that I hadn’t bothered to call as hers slipped away.
There were photos from high school dances with youthful declarations of eternal friendship written on the backs, a note referencing our first post-high school Thanksgiving (spent together in my postage stamp of a room at the Boston Y), a fridge magnet of a foamy latte she had given me when I rented my first apartment in Seattle.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for until her tiny, careful cursive jumped out at me from the pages of a school yearbook:
“I hope that no matter what we’ll (you & I) be friends as we are always. No matter if all of us separate, go our own ways. Don’t worry, I don’t blame you for anything. We are friends forever.”
She was most likely talking about some overly dramatic teenage fight, probably involving boys or who sat where at the lunch table, but I think she’d be fine with my more liberal interpretation.
And there was something uniquely comforting about being able to see her words in her own handwriting, something personal that can’t be transmitted through a screen.
A few weeks later, another (very much alive) friend and I were talking about how we want to remember our thirties through more than humble-braggy Instagram photos. Just as we unwittingly documented the genuine moments that defined our early twenties, from the impulsive cross-country moves to the awkward first dates, we should have a messy, authentic scrapbook of the gray hair and babies and career changes and dead friends and all of the real life that is rushing past right now. (If you refer me to my Facebook timeline, I will rip out my prematurely graying strands and strangle you with them.)
My friend decided she would write the first letter. It slid through the mail slot a week later in a cream-colored envelope, the return address with a different last name but the same handwriting as ten years ago. It began: “I keep thinking that anything I write in this note, I have to make sure to not bring up on FB.”
She’s right—this may take some practice.