"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Friday, October 14, 2011

Life, Letters, and the Loss of The US Postal Service

It seems that the US Postal Service is in trouble. Big trouble. Some articles and news outlets say that the entire system could shut down, with a large number of closings as early as the end of this year. While snail mail is certainly taking a hit because of our ability to email most of our communications, it seems unfathomable to me that we could lose the system altogether.

I have to believe that won’t happen. There will more than likely be huge cuts, and the USPS as we know it will never be the same again. One of the proposed cuts is to end Saturday mail delivery. While I would hate to see that happen, I am willing to lose one day of distribution in order to save the service as a whole.

I may be of a dying breed, but I love sending and receiving true mail—in my mailbox. Although I admit that I don’t write the long letters that I used to, I do love sending greeting cards. There is something special about getting a real greeting card on your birthday…there always has been. But now, it is even more special as we all shortcut and wish our friends a Happy Birthday via Facebook or by sending an e-card. Most of the time, I go to the mailbox expecting bills or junk mail, and sometimes get the surprise treat of a card. Even the bills I once received in the mail have become few and far between as electronic billing takes hold. That is a good thing. I am all for saving trees. But I can’t let myself believe that the day is coming when there won’t be a mailbox to go to each day.

I think back to all the years of letter writing I have behind me. At the end of my senior year in high school, I met my first real boyfriend. He was already in college in a city about an hour away. We were able to see each other on weekends, and began writing letters in between visits. There was something magical about seeing him on a Sunday, and the next day, coming home from school to a letter waiting for me, his handwriting recognizable to me immediately on the outside of the envelope. Even though I had just seen him, I had the words he had written the week before, expressing his feelings on a random college afternoon. I kept his letters in a shoebox, and added to the stack, carefully preserving the creases in the stationery each time.

Then, he went home for the summer, all the way to Maine, and the real letter writing began. We both ran up huge phone bills that summer, but the letters never stopped. Phone calls were fleeting and precious, but his letters were lasting and permanent, and carried the added value of being there for me to read again and again.

As happens with many first loves, ours didn’t last. But our letters did. For years, when I would come across them, I would start to throw them away, but I couldn’t part with them. Through other relationships and more letters and mementos, his letters stayed in the box—a little patchwork piece of time in my life, frozen in tattered envelopes with a New England postmark.

As the years passed, and through several moves to other states, and across the country, I kept what I called “the boyfriend box”. Filled with letters and keepsakes from my past relationships, it was like a time capsule of my life- the love and loss, the lessons and memories, the goodbyes and heartbreak. Sometimes I would be unpacking or organizing and I would come across the box and revisit times gone by. More often than not, I would laugh at my innocence, my mistakes, and my choices. But it was all bittersweet and lovely.

A few years ago, I was in an antique shop, sorting through old photos and I came across a crumpled brown paper bag. In it was a stack of letters, yellowed with age, addressed in a lacy, fountain pen’s scrawl. I gingerly opened the first one, and after reading the first few lines, I almost turned away. The words seemed too personal, too intimate to be read by a stranger. The subject matter was not lewd or even inappropriate, it was just expressions of love, longing, and shared memories. All of the letters were from a young man in the military, obviously stationed away from his love. He wrote to her of missing her sweet smile, and holding her hand. He wrote of wanting to finish what they had started, to come back to her whole and healthy, and pick up where they left off.

Although the grammar and spelling were imperfect, to me the letters were beautiful. I asked the store clerk about the price, which seemed shockingly low to me-- mere pennies for pieces of someone’s history. I purchased them, and as I left the store, the clerk asked what I was going to do with them-- she assumed decoupage. I told her she had guessed correctly. But, really, I just couldn’t stand to leave them there. I came home and put them in my "boyfriend box", with all the other letters that were too treasured to become trash.

I still have the boyfriend box, although if I had to locate it, it might take an hour or two. The box is somewhere in another box in our garage, packed up with things that aren’t necessary to unpack, but that I still keep. 

I think about all the letters we have from one historical figure to another, or to their spouses. I think of all the precious war letters that have survived the various battles throughout the world, the letters people still cherish in their own boxes somewhere, tied with ribbon in a faded stack. Nothing can evoke an emotional reaction from me like hearing that an elderly person has kept every letter he or she wrote and received from their spouse through the years of a long marriage. All those words and memories to revisit. The choice of the stationery and the stamp. The postmarks from a well-traveled life. It can’t be replaced or recreated in electronic form.

I know the future holds a lot of changes in the way we communicate, and I am thankful for the quick exchanges of email most every day. But I will miss letters. I will miss the waiting (that I used to hate and complain about), and the race to the mailbox for the next installment with someone I care about, maybe from across the world. In a way, it is already gone. I hope we can keep some part of it going, and I am sure the nearly 600,000 employees of the United States Postal Service hope the same thing.

For that reason, though, I can’t part with the letters I have. Maybe someday, years and years and years from now, someone will be rummaging through an antique store and come across my old letters and take them home for safekeeping--for just the same reasons I did. No personal relation, no real attachment. Just to preserve a little bit of history and save the words and paper that once meant so much to someone out there.


Eva Gallant October 14, 2011 at 9:21 AM  

What a beautiful post. It is sad that most of us no longer write letters like we used to.

msprimadonna67 October 14, 2011 at 11:11 AM  

I love this post. I would have purchased that packet of letters, too; that kind of personal, intimate history is too beautiful (and these days, too rare) to leave languishing and unappreciated.


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