About a month ago our basement flooded and I was forced to do the long overdue task of sorting through some boxes I’ve moved around with me since college. I wanted to see the extent of the water damage and throw away anything that couldn’t be salvaged.
To my surprise, I found two boxes totally full of old letters. I knew I had kept some, but had no idea how much of a pack rat I had been with letters from friends and family. It was a warm sunny day outside, so I lugged the boxes to our backyard where my 4 year old could play while I meandered down memory lane. What started out being a fun exercise, very quickly turned painful as I found letter after letter from my dad. My father died in 1991, three years after I graduated from college, and I had totally forgotten how often he had written to me during my college and post college years. I knew his handwriting instantly. He had perfect handwriting: so careful and beautiful, and after a slight hesitation, I opened the first one, read a few lines and cried.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” queried Benjamin. “Nothing, Sweetie, I’m just a little sad. You go ahead and keep playing.”
I instantly missed dad and battled regret: Why didn’t I go to see him more after I had left home? Why didn’t I call more? Why didn’t I appreciate him more? Through so many of my young adult years, I concentrated on his shortcomings and prayed through areas of my life where I needed healing because of them, but in those letters I was reminded of a soft heart inside that brusque giant of a man. I saw how deeply he loved me and how much he wanted to protect me. At the time, I probably rolled my eyes that he was “lecturing” me even long distance. But now, seeing those letters through the eyes of a parent, I realize he was just trying his best to protect me and provide some guidance, even as I had left the safety of our childhood home and struck out into the world as a young, independent woman.
And so, in one, he commented on the acquisition of my first car and he enjoined me to develop a maintenance schedule and to drive safely. In another, he hoped that college life would teach me that all of life was not black and white: that life had a lot of grey. (I was very rigid as a young adult, and have discovered over these last 20 years how much of life is indeed grey.)
He wrote several letters to me while I studied in England. In one, sent right before Christmas, he wrote: While you’re there, I encourage you to go to Germany or Holland or wherever. Just make sure you are aware of the conditions in these countries… Paris is one of the places that makes me nervous. He knew I was hoping to see Paris while abroad, but there had been several terrorist attacks in that city at the time and many were avoiding it. Much to my father’s relief, I chose Berlin and Amsterdam instead.
He closed that letter with, Whatever you do, I trust in the Lord for your wisdom and safety. Enjoy this holiday and all your hours over there. You cannot be lonely with the Lord at your side and in your life. I love you, Dad.
Growing up, I never thought my father had much of a relationship with the Lord, but in letter after letter, I saw that he was praying for his girls and trying to trust God through his trials.
My father had kidney failure and was on dialysis during the last few years of his life. In one letter, he wrote about his excitement upon being called with a possible kidney donation and then the disappointment that it wasn’t a match. I wish I had been there to hug him during that roller coaster ride.
After reading as many as I could emotionally handle at the time, I switched to some letters from friends who wrote to me while at home in Brooklyn for the summers. Many were funny and thoughtful and endearing.
And then to some of the scores written by my mom, who so faithfully wrote every Sunday night for years. I don’t think I’ve thrown a single one away, I’m not sure if I ever could. I treasure all of them.
I came away from that afternoon emotionally raw, but also grateful: grateful that letter writing was such a big part of my life for so many years and that so many people had taken the time to write to me. In this new age of email and texting, I wonder how many young people are storing up boxes of hand written letters. I save important emails, but it’s not the same as seeing that familiar handwriting and the “I love you” or “I miss you” at the end.
I hope I have the fortitude to write to my boys when they go to college: actual, snail mail letters. And I hope letter writing is not totally a lost art. After all, we have most of the New Testament because someone wrote letters and we know much of our nation’s history because of letters written from the battlefield, or from the Oval Office. May we write notes and cards and letters, despite the continual upgrading of computer gadgetry. There really is nothing like an actual pen, set to actual paper.