Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I Got A Box Full of Letters

Do you know that song by Wilco? It came out the year I got married. It has a verse I think is funny:

I got a lot of your records,
in a separate stack.
There's some things I might like to hear,
But I guess I'll give them back.

That says more about the end of a relationship than entire novels I have read. It's that word "might." Economy of language, friends.

Sunday before last, the kids and I got home from the mountains really late. As late as it was, Matt was down in the basement busily sorting and clearing out so that Larry and Darryl the basement guys could start the next morning. I wanted to just stare into his eyes and feed each other grapes, you know, but he had different ideas. He led me to four cardboard boxes. I tried to pretend I had no idea what he was asking, but his meaning was clear. I recognized the four boxes as things from my old room at my parents' house. Boxes that had come straight to our basement unsorted. Three of them were books, but one was a box full of letters.

Matt wanted me to go through them and decide what to keep and what to chuck, so I did. I was merciless on the books. Then I opened the last box. There were three strata: high school stuff with a little middle school thrown in, letters to and from college friends and boyfriends, and notes and memorabilia from my study-abroad time in Rome. I knew that if I'd had time and a more comfortable place to sit, I could have fallen headlong into a slough of memory and desire. But I was kind of efficient. When I found bits of an old journal, say, I didn't read it so much as take note of its existence and move on. This was all stuff I had wanted to save at one time. Now a good bit of it was garbage. I threw away a bunch of grades and official records/awards type junk. I kept a fair amount of high school writing, my own and others'. I kept anything that had been written by a friend I still have today. So if you are within the sound of my voice right now, and you knew me in high school, there's some poetry of yours that needs analyzing. I threw away my ACT scores but kept my SAT's, figure that one out. I threw away my notes from my Opera class in Rome, I kept the Art History ones.

The absolutely untouchable category was the letters. It's amazing to think now, but in the early nineties, we college kids wrote each other letters. Lots of them. I had a tight-knit circle of friends, and when we were separated by school breaks or study abroad, we wrote. Some long letters, some postcards. Now those letters speak of lazy summers and low-end jobs we had between terms. Who has time to do that anymore? It's odd. I think we had email addresses--I remember the school gave them to us, maybe--but we must not have used them? I know I never in college had a personal computer. Now, by early 1995 when my long-distance courtship with Matt was heating up, we were both on AOL. Then we emailed and IM'd and all the rest. But there are lots of letters between us from before the dawn of email. I felt pleasure pulling them out of the box. Something about that physical, tangible object. It feels like a gift from the letter writer, the letter is a gift to you of the time it took to write and send it.

Of course, at the same time, this is what my dissertation was about: letters and letterness, especially the way a letter's controlling fiction is that it's an intimate, true, "real" piece of the writer's presence. Once, in a class I taught, one of my brilliantest students was musing on the difference, in genre terms, between a letter and a postcard. She said, "It's like a letter presents the person and is all about closeness, and a postcard embraces the distance." And I thought, "I could put down my chalk and leave the room, 'cause they get it."

Anyway, so I was pulling these various letters from various people out of the box and exclaiming over them. I couldn't get into reading them because there were miles to go before we slept, and Matt and I hadn't seen each other in a few days and we had important chatting to chat. So I put them all in a safe keeper pile. I just don't have it in me to throw out someone's personal letter.

Which brings me to the funny thing that happened: down in the box was a pile of letters to an old boyfriend of mine from another old girlfriend of his, somebody before me. I never knew this person or laid eyes on her. There were ten or twelve letters on business-sized stationery. She had beautiful handwriting and she decorated the outside of the envelopes. Again, who has time to do this anymore? Reader, I don't know why I had these. Maybe they were part of some of his belongings that transferred to me somehow? We never lived together so I don't know. I didn't remember them at all. I don't know if I had once read them or not. It seemed an odd thing for me to keep. But there was no way I could throw them away.

So I messaged the old boyfriend on the facebook. We've always been on good terms; we have mutual friends, though it's been ten years since I saw him. I told him, hey, I found these old letters from your old girlfriend X, don't know why I have 'em. Would you like me to send them to you? I didn't want to throw them away, but if you don't want them now, lemme know and I will give them a respectful burial.

And he hasn't written back to me. That was a week and a half ago. I'm kind of surprised I didn't hear right back, one way or the other. He is married now, but I wasn't offering to send him naked pictures of this other girl. So I don't know. Maybe it just seemed like something he didn't really want to deal with? Or didn't want to make a decision about? If he doesn't ask for them (I don't know his address), I really have no reason in the world to keep them, except that it seems utterly impossible to throw out the work of someone's hand like that.

What would you do? What will probably happen is that they'll live in my possession for another fifteen years. And then I will be less sentimental and one day they'll get tossed. Or my heirs will puzzle over who are these people and are these now precious family treasures?

That was a nice night in the basement, even if we weren't feeding each other grapes. I thought about how much I enjoy Matt's company and who he is and our life together, and how sometimes I feel like life is rushing by and there might not be enough time to talk about all the things I want to talk about with him.

It's hilarious that I've had this blog for three years, because in all that box of letters, I didn't read anything that I had written. I put it all aside for some future time when maybe I can stand myself. You know?

18 comments:

Elizabeth said...

I love the musing tone of this post. I have shoeboxes and shoeboxes filled to the brim with letters. Old boyfriends, old husbands (!) -- just one! -- my father. I can NOT throw a single letter or card away that I receive. You've inspired me to perhaps pull them out and go through them --

Becky said...

Elizabeth! I love that since I've been doing this late night blogging thing, you tend to be my first comment. And when nobody has commented yet, I'm like, "Where's Elizabeth?!?"

nova said...

You know what I would do with all those letters? Make cool scrapbooks or something for them. Just imagine your grandkids or great grand kids finding them! Even the ex's ex-girlfriend letters, get her a seperate book, and write an intro explaining what they are.

Beth said...

The ex's letters could produce a kind of Griffin and Sabine book. Did you read those books when they were all the rage? I imagine you must have with the letters and lettering and such.

I miss getting mail. I've been wanting for a while to start doing mail art, which is a thing, but I haven't had time. As you say!

Amy said...

I've saved some cards and letters from Jason--before we started with The Email, and it's like coded messages cause his handwriting is so bad that I'm the only one who can read it!

This is a great post...so much here to comment on! I agree that it's hard to throw away letters and handwritten things. Especially now, they feel like such a personal piece of history. And I know why you saved your SAT scores--that was an historic moment. :)

As for the ex of the ex, is there a return address on her envelopes? What if you sent them to HER?? Freaky!! Then you could be besties, maybe? Or not. By the way, I tried to friend this ex bf of yours on Facebook a few weeks ago and he never confirmed me. So maybe he doesn't get on FB much? That must be the reason. CAUSE WHO WOULDN'T WANT TO BE MY FRIEND?

Jenni said...

I had a box full of letters at my mom's house. I wonder what happened to those? I may have tossed them, but that does not seem like me. We moved when I was 10 and I corresponded via mail with my cousin for like 7 or 8 years, and several other friends as well.

Nelson kept all the notes I ever passed him in high school. He put them in a loose-leaf binder. I looked through them one day years ago. It was a little painful. I was so vapid, and I had horrible spelling and I was a little embarrassed for my 16-year-old self.

Michele R said...

I never seem to make a dent in cleaning out my closet because that is where I store my old journals and letters boxes and I end up reading on the floor of the closet.
What a mystery about the girlfriend letters. I would have sat there and read them all--or made a plan to do such as soon as the area became a Hubs-free zone.
Not sure what I would have done about the girlfriend to an old boyfriend letters you found. Did you check the dates? I once had a boyfriend who apparently told some girl he was available and found a letter written to him while we were going out and he was so stupid to leave it in his room and I found it and then I was even more stupid to keep going out with him.

Rebekah said...

I have old letters from friends, Sloan, etc. too. We had email then too, but not everyone else did. My dad got email after I was at college and I think I wrote to him sometimes, but a lot of people didn't have it then in the early-mid 90s. You and Matt are great; I hope you get to feed each other grapes in a finished basement soon.

mmeperpetua said...

Well. That's the first time I've read a description of a dissertation and wanted to read it, honest to goodness.

delaine said...

I love your poignant take on how life is fleeting. It is important to realize that, I think, and spend time with your husband and others you love . Isn't it wonderful that you and Matt so enjoy one another's company? As for that bundle of letters, I say trash 'em.

Aimee said...

Oh, the letters! My friends and I wrote in high school, because I moved from California to England. I don't have them all, but I have a bunch. I love pulling them out when I run across the box.

I do miss letters.

Becky said...

Perpetua, that is high praise! Thank you.

Jenni, I was totally embarrassed for myself and everyone else I knew. Maybe one day I can read all that stuff.

Amy, I'm not sure we're talking about the same person. Not Joe.

Amy said...

Oh. Oops. Ok, so the other one I'm thinking of isn't married, I don't think? Clearly you'll need to email me.

Hootie said...

I don't think you and I ever exchanged actual letters, but if we did, I still have them. I think I have kept every single "letter" that I've received from probably high school on. For the reasons you describe... they always seemed to be a (selfless?) act of creation. I hated writing, but always enjoyed having written. I assumed others felt the same way, and I like to to honor that. (You know who wrote great letters? Brenda. I think she was trying to entertain me, and she always did. Now we live in the fleeting world of IM, and the occasional face-to-face conversation.)

Kelly said...

I have a box of letters up in my parent's attic that I'll need to go through some day. Years and years of memories!

I remember one time in middle school I got in a huge fight with my then best friend and filled a shoe box with all the letters we'd ever written to each other and burned it. I wish I hadn't done that.

laura said...

When I came across my old journals I didn't even crack them open but took them straight to the shredder because I just couldn't bear to read the crap I wrote when I was fifteen or sixteen.

Now about those letters. Did you read them? Please keep us posted if your old beau gets in touch with you and asks for the letters. Being all dramatic and such I'm thinking he is taking a long time to answer because he is in an ethical quandary because he never got over her and doesn't want his wife to know.

Maybe I should write more and lay off the Lifetime movies, eh?

Kate said...

Ahhh. letters. I adore them, even if they are few and far between. I used to have a box of letters from my old boyfriends, college friends, grandparents, etc. and I lost it in a move! I am so sad about that, especially after reading your post. I wish someone like you had found the box.

Elle said...

I had an epistolary courtship as a girl, conducted through the international mails. The sweetness of that dynamic -- the strange confluence of the distance, the lag-time, juxtaposed against the urgency with which we set upon and responded to every missive, all reflected in all the prose -- persists in our very different relationship today.

What you say abt the handmade-gift element of a letter is so true; the nuance of a letter is so different now, particularly if one was never a letter-writer when it was all we had. Anyhow.