Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This is my letter to the world that wrote volumes to me*

Regular readers of this blog know about our love of ephemera, and may recall my describing the wonder of re-reading myself through the letters I wrote to my friend Christina in college, which she returned to me a year or so ago.

Christina, Kristin, and I have our annual meetup scheduled for this coming weekend, and I decided I wanted the two of them to have the letters they'd written to me during during college. So, I dragged out the boxes full of old cards and letters that I've now moved across the country twice, and started sorting through them to find the ones from Christina and Kyer.

There are hundreds of letters in these boxes, as you can see, going all the way back to my high-school days. It amazes me how much time we all seemed to have 25 years or so ago to write, longhand, such lengthy and detailed letters, and so regularly! And in fact, it's the ones from exactly 25 years ago (or a little more) that particularly struck me as I sorted through the stacks.

My freshman year was not a good one. My mother was recovering from cancer that she had the spring that I graduated from high school, my sister had just had a baby and was having trouble with her (now ex) husband, and I'd never lived anywhere other than Columbus, Ohio when I went off to Wellesley College in the fall of 1983. But it was my "dream school," so I figured that once I got there, all the magic fairy dust that I perceived floating around the place would make any difficulties disappear.

No such luck: I slipped into my first profound depression that fall, which reached its nadir when I went back after Thanksgiving and just fell apart. Over the holiday break, I decided not to go back, and felt immediately relieved...though also guilty, ashamed, weak, and pathetic. Needless to say, the depression continued, on a different plane, and didn't really lift until early in 1985, when I really got settled in at Ohio State, which had become my "not-so-dreamy" but comfortable school of choice.

In hindsight, it all worked out fine. But still, it's often felt like the "lost year" of my life.

Until now. I couldn't believe the sheer quantity of mail I discovered that had been sent to me that fall at Wellesley--as well as the many letters the friends I'd made there sent to me throughout the following spring. Nor could I believe the amount of love and support and empathy that poured out of those envelopes--from my parents, friends, friends-of-parents, siblings, neighbors, teachers...seriously, I think there's at least one letter in there from everyone I knew at that point in my young life. I was blown away to see and feel, literally, the amount of concern people felt for me--concern I don't recall registering or remarking on at the time.

Here are a few examples. A card from my sardonic high-school biology teacher, Mr. Logsdon, in which he asks, "Is the food edible? Bring a sample back for analysis if you have questions," and advises me to "stay away from the men and the bars--school comes first."

A postcard from my friend Jay, announcing that he's coming to visit (which was truly a high point of the semester).

A postcard my mother sent, explaining that "Mary Baxter [a colleague of my mother's] sends you this. She has had it in her office window and thinks it should be yours now."

A note (not pictured) that my favorite professor from that first semester, Kathryn Lynch, sent after she wrote a recommendation letter for me. The 1983-84 academic year had been her first year teaching at Wellesley. Toward the end of the note, she writes about her own difficulties transitioning to Boston from California, writing that "Freshman years are difficult in general, even when you're as old as I am." Only now, having survived two first semesters in new academic jobs, can I appreciate the feeling and empathy behind those words.

And finally, a letter from one of my hallmates, Susan D., who was a loyal correspondent right through college. Honestly, I'd forgotten that until I discovered many letters from her from December of 1983 through the the spring of 1987, when she graduated from Wellesley. At the beginning of that year, she sent the following, asking questions that seem particularly poignant to me now:

Dream and nightmare both, at that time. Bittersweet and undoubtedly distorted memory now.

I was so moved to see just how many letters I got from my former Beebe Hall dorm-mates in the first months of 1984. To me it seemed that the Wellesley door was hermetically sealed when I packed my stuff and drove away from the empty campus before spring semester 1984 started. But apparently it was part of my life--and vice-versa--for some time afterward. Looking back at those letters now feels a bit George-Bailey-esque: here's what this world looked like without you.

Last summer, via Facebook, I reconnected with one of those remarkable women (Jane over at Leaf - Stitch - Word), and through her, learned of the whereabouts of several others. It felt as if my life had come full circle: my present self meeting my past self and both knowing her and feeling as if she lived on a different planet than the one I now occupy. That experience, combined with these letters, go a long way toward patching the pothole that seemed to open up in my life in the fall of 1983 and the winter of 1984.

My life was, and is, contiguous, assembled haphazardly from scraps of paper layered over time until the compiler finally thinks to step back, and sees the form that's emerged, unbidden. I feel blessed to have received and to still have these remarkable scraps, and--after the better part of three decades--to finally be able to read their messages.

[*with apologies to Emily Dickinson]


Anonymous said...

Only you would have all of those letters, so neatly stored away, waiting to be rediscovered like this. It's times like this that I wish I were better at the organization needed to be nostalgic. Though I fear that all of the letters sent to me during my college years would have fit in just a section of one of those shoeboxes!

And BTW, does this mean you save all of your emails as well?

Anonymous said...

That's brilliant. It's wonderful to have that level of support when you're lonely and stressed and depressed; heck, even when you're in a good place in your life! This is partially why I have begun to hand-write more notes and letters to friends and family recently, in addition to emailing -- there's a value in the physical missive that goes beyond just the words and sentiments.

I just got a thank-you note from my brother for his Christmas present, which contained nothing that he hadn't mentioned when he received the gift or news that he'd conveyed when we chatted since then -- but it was still a nice moment in my day to get that letter.

Anonymous said...

This is SO cool. I love old letters- anybody's old letters!

I also have a box of letters and journals from about age 8 on. I moved a lot as a child and managed to keep up several pen pals. I have most of those letters, plus every note all my friends in school wrote me.

In high schoo, many kids in my group went to different schools- some to the private, some to the public. We had a system where we'd leave letters in the milk box for each other. We called it the Milk Box Mail System. (Do milk boxes even still exist?)

Plus my college letters and all that- I love it. It really breaks my heart that nobody writes "real" letters anymore. I still write them here and there, but many people no longer answer via snail mail.

Ephemera. Thanks for putting a word to that. I so envied your "Friendship Archivist" when you mentioned her in your last post about ephemera. I think a book of letters between friends would be fascinating.

Oh- you may want to check out if you like to read other people's old stuff, particularly the embarrassing stuff! Or for found items. I love the letters and lists.

Christy said...

I loved this post for so many reasons, but here are just two:

-What a poignant, melancholy, but also giddy rush to see Jay's own words in his own unmistakable handwriting.

-I've been going through some of my own freshman hurdles (with the new job) lately, and it's heartening to see that experience universalized.

I envy your foresight to save these letters! And here's some strange kismet: my word verification below -- I'm not kidding -- is 'reader.'

Heather Houlahan said...

Rosemary --


I cannot begin to recreate the zen googles, searching for something else, that landed me on your blog -- and on this very post.

Causing as much surprised whiplash as one can manage when actually already staring at a laptop screen.

1985. Governor's Honor Program. Ring any bells? Or toot any absolutely ridiculous Opel horns?

Rosemary said...

Thanks for the comments, all...this was kind of a tough post to write, so I appreciate your positive response!

@Catherine--you may be jealous of the "friendship archivist," but *I'm* jealous of the Milk Box Mail System. How cool. (We had a milk box in Greeley for awhile...and then the home delivery ended. Very sad.)

@ej--I do save some e-mails, though it's harder to access the older ones, since they're all in an e-mail program (Eudora) that I no longer use anymore. Just not the same, somehow. So don't worry: you probably don't have to worry about me posting some decades-old missive from you in 2030!

@Erica and Christy--There really is something so remarkable about the handwriting in's really how I was able to sort out who sent which ones. Jay's, of course, are very easy to pick out, rest his soul. Sad to say, if I *do* write a real letter to someone these days, I often type it anyway, because my handwriting is so bad.

@Heather--Kismet indeed, sister, since I found a lot of letters from *you* when I was sorting through these and found myself thinking, "Whatever happened to Heather Houlahan?" !!!!