I received a letter in the mail recently. Remember those? It was just another average day as I made the long trek down to the mailbox that sits at the foot of my driveway. I pulled down the front flap expecting the usual clutter of ads and coupons, and found instead … a letter.
A genuine, handwritten letter! It was from my cousin in Paris and, I have to confess, my heart skipped a beat at the sight of it. It wasn’t just the novelty of receiving such an unexpected treat.
The sight of that letter with its thin, airmail style envelope transported me into the far distant past. It was like time traveling. I was twenty-one again and half running, half skipping down to the rural type mailbox that sat at the curb of my parents' house.
This was before junk mail inserted itself into America’s everyday persona. Back then, a person never knew what they might find awaiting them inside that little box, but more than likely it would not be the flyers, ads and other discardable ephemera they would find in today’s daily fare.
In my case, it was letters from my fiancè who, back in 1971 lived in New York City, a thousand miles from my home in central Illinois.
He would send me nice fat letters, full of personal news and mementoes—sometimes there were two or more letters a day! They would arrive in the same type of airmail envelope as did my cousin's recent letter. That envelope was the trigger. It sent my thoughts tumbling back in time, remembering how my heart would leap at the sight of those other envelopes with their return address marked Brooklyn Heights, New York.
The hand-printed letters were my favorites, although the typed ones promised to be much longer, newsy letters telling me of his day's activities, his deepest thoughts, and of his longing to be with me again.
I would generally slip those letters into my pocket to be retrieved later and read in private when I had time to savor every precious word. I would run the envelope beneath my nose and breathe in the smell of his life there in New York, a life so very different from my own.
I always imagined I could smell his unique scent on the envelope … and maybe I could. Maybe he spritzed the pages with his favorite cologne or after-shave before dropping it into the corner mailbox. Maybe there was a hint of typewriter ink or the wood smell of his desk mixed in as well, or a hint of the mint he had popped into his mouth after lunch.
I would turn the envelope over and over in my hands, examining it for hidden messages, imagining what was inside that might have made it so thick.
He was good at letter writing. He never ran out of things to say and it was a rare occasion when he did not enclose something special, a memento or some silly thing that added his own unique imprint to each letter.
One time it was a requisition slip he had filled out–very official looking and worded as if I myself was the item being requisitioned.
Another time it was an advertisement clipped from a magazine mentioning Peoria (a formerly obscure little town that had taken on new meaning to him since it now had the distinction of being his fiancè’s home).
He had a great sense of humor. (Now, some 40+ years later, he still does.)
Sadly, those letters are all gone now—tossed away in an impulsive moment of supreme sacrifice.
We were moving across country, pulling a small U-Haul trailer containing all our worldly possessions. Our little compact car just could not make it over the mountains outside of Indio, California and no amount of “I think I cans” was going to change that fact!
The little engine kept overheating before we even reached the summit. We would sit there in the pitch black of midnight waiting for it to cool down so we could try again. We were like the Little Engine That Could—only we couldn’t.
As it turned out, we needed a new radiator, so we began unloading the U-Haul, leaving behind a disjointed menagerie of mostly expendable treasures at the foot of the San Bernardino mountains -- treasures that included a lush houseplant that I had nurtured for over a year, several pieces of furniture—and a square white box containing all my precious love letters.
If only life had a rewind button.
So, if someone out there in the desert around Indio, California happened to find, sometime back in the spring of 1974, a white gift box tied with ribbon and filled with love letters, some in airmail envelopes—now you know the whole story.
And if you should find it in your heart to return those letters to this formerly foolish, idealistic, short-sighted young ‘girl,’ she would be forever grateful and in your debt -- because letters are precious and letter writing is quickly becoming a lost art.