Handwritten Letters: A Paper Time Machine

by Kari Anne Roy
Originally Published: 

I found unused candles, old bathmats, a jar with a $2 bill in it. I found sno-globes, receipts from my honeymoon, and a box with a sterling silver mirror, hairbrush and comb set. I found a baffling set of three small, plastic puffer fish. I even found a Polaroid camera still in its original box.

Then I found the boxes from high school and college. Awards, report cards, trophies, trinkets, concert ticket stubs, a shriveled corsage.

And so many letters. Boxes full of letters and nothing else.

What surprised me, though, was that among the letters were just zillions of cards. Not only birthday cards and Christmas cards, but postcards from my grandmother giving me the lowdown on the Georgia Bulldawg football season. Thank-you cards from people who were friends of friends that I’d hung out with over a long weekend. Little notes from my mom and dad reminding me to save money and hoping that “going away to college is everything you wanted it to be.” There were Hallmark cards from people just saying Hi, funny postcards from my grandmother on vacation. Little notes saying simple things like, “See you at Thanksgiving,” and more complicated cards saying things like “You’re too smart to let someone knock you down.”

So I sat this morning and laughed and cried and missed friends I no longer talk to, and understood how hard it must have been for my parents to send me off into the great big world, and marveled over just how long my husband and I have known each other, and mourned my grandmother all over again.

While I might not miss being in high school and I might not miss those first few years of college, I do miss the letters and cards and packages and photos. I miss the feeling of anticipation when the mailman is a few minutes late; the wonder of what correspondence awaits after a hard day.

You might be able to argue that we still get these feelings with email, and that we’re lucky to enjoy a more immediate response. And, true, while the sentiments can be the same in email as they are in letters and cards, you don’t get the same visceral feeling. You don’t get the smeared ink. You don’t get the rings of coffee from a misplaced mug. You don’t get the sprinkle of dirt from someone composing a letter under a tree. You don’t get the change of handwriting from “Hi, how are you,” to “You’ll never guess what happened” to “I miss you so much I physically ache.” The swirls and loops slow down and speed up with emotion. The pen is pressed harder, the pencil erased.

There is so much life in letters. So much. The cards from my grandmother this morning knocked the wind out of me. To see her handwriting, the smiley faces she would draw, the smear that was almost a thumbprint. It seemed as though, right there in my bedroom, she was alive and thriving and still writing me letters.

People can say there’s an immediacy to email, but the real immediacy is in a handwritten note. There is life in that ink. There is emotion in that scrawl. These letters are my time machine.

And so my attempt to declutter has been somewhat thwarted. The letters and cards and photos go back into their boxes, and I have to figure out what I’m going to do with them. Puffer fish and candlesticks are easy to get rid of, but these snippets of day-to-day loveliness are staying right here with me.

(It was really nice to hear from you today, Mudder. I miss you.)

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