I was stuck in traffic on I-5 when I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the memory of the look and feel of my deceased grandmother’s papery hands. The narrow but firm shape, translucent soft skin, and how when she wore a ring on special occasions it would loosely hang off her finger. If anywhere else I might have been able to shake off the memory but being stuck in traffic kept me stuck in my head and suddenly I was enveloped in a wave of concern that I did not have a tangible thing to remind me of her. Not a jewelry box or necklace; no token that could be held. Different from having a picture, I could not go home and hold a small figurine of her life and just stare at and feel all of things that I associated with her. My chest tightened and as Lush’s “Sweetness and Light” played on the radio, I began to cry.
But as quickly as the tears fell they stopped when I realized that I did have an artifact from my grandma’s life, in fact, I had many. Since I left for college I had been corresponding with her through letters up until the last few months of her life – letters that I kept. I don’t just have a tchotchke but I have years of thought processes, illustrations of her personality, and countless updates on the weather. She would always say “If you don’t have anything to talk about, you can always talk about the weather” and she did. Meteorologists would be impressed with the precision she had for noting a slight change of temperature by the end of the day. She may not have had anything important to say but continued to send letters just to let me know she was there.
I have these letters all over my house, living in strange places until I find them – in between papers and in boxes of old pictures and Christmas decorations. When I find one sometimes the most interesting thing about the letter is the address on the envelope. For years, I lived in a small studio in downtown San Francisco but before then I lived in random spaces for fleeting amounts of time: the dorms at San Francisco State, sub-letted apartments on Cambon Street and Bush Street, addresses on Treasure Island and the Presidio, a brief stint in a horrible apartment shared with a woman who dressed her Shih Tzu in a sailor suit, and a student-filled house on Goddard Street in Hull, UK. No matter where I lived or for how long, a letter from grandma made its way to my mailbox. I always tried to respond as soon as I received them but it often took me longer than I liked. I felt my letters were shallow and not worth sending because the majority of the time I had nothing to report and I’m not much of a weather person.
If I had letters all over my house, were letters I sent to friends all over their houses? I started to wonder what happened to all the letters I sent before the internet “connected” us all so I asked my friend, Erin, who was my first pen pal at the age of six. We’re Facebook friends now and don’t write letters anymore but every once and awhile we’ll “like” each other’s posts. She was a little shy in her response but she said that she had kept them for awhile but at some point she had to throw them away. Truth be told, I was shocked but why? Is it possible to keep all the letters ever sent to you? Do the senders expect that you have a box with their name on it and go back to them once and awhile to reflect? What’s the protocol?
Maybe I’m a romantic but I’ve always felt a written letter is a sweet shared experience that transcends the sterile font of email exchanges and trigger reminders and revelations of the person behind the pen; the physical handwriting creates an organic memento of that person’s existence. I do receive emails from friends that are sentimental to me but I wonder what kind of personal touches those emails would have if on paper. Would they be one of those letters in which the writing is a ferocious groove-inducing act with physical traces of the writer hardly able to keep up with the contents of their head? Or would it be like those letters where the writer has great attention to detail in their narrative only to trail off into scribbles when they realize they should wrap the whole thing up and get it in the mail? Would there be small drawings or doodles?
I have always enjoyed letters that span time where the writer diligently marks the beginning time and end time of each little entry allowing a little portal into their daily routine. One friend wrote me a letter dated “half-past never, someday” where he detailed a night shift at a frozen pea factory where he worked for a summer. I can clearly hear the East Yorkshire peaks and valleys of his voice and the deterioration of his alertness is strikingly predictable by looking at his handwriting and stream of consciousness. What starts as a letter written on breaks while he is feverishly seeking out sources of caffeine turns into a shift that spirals into an injured head and preparation to bike home in the rain, a scrawled signature and extra notes crammed together at the bottom of the page with confusing urgency. Whenever I come across this letter I always wonder why he just didn’t finish it the next day.
Alongside my collection of letters are the postcards that only allow enough space meant to relay the most succinct messages and never beg a response; however, very few postcards I’ve kept have these banal greetings. On retained postcards, my friends have shared the decision to start an 80s cover band named “Bizarre Club Triangle” to “ensure” financial stability, they’ve sent a hello from a certain unnamed Middle Eastern country along with a concern that I am now on the CIA watch list for receiving a postcard from the certain unnamed country, scrawled fragmented Jack Kerouac quotes, and presented philosophical ramblings about the Kool-Aid guy. It’s almost like my friends accepted a challenge to create the most haphazard communication ever sent.
These marked up pieces of paper serve as artifacts and a kind of witness to those people – from amazing to tortured- who have stopped for a moment in their frenetic or regimented lives to drop me a line. Christmas cards from Glasgow and wedding invitations from friendships made in kindergarten – they all contribute to a timeline that only the two of us share. It’s hard for me to throw these moments away. Unlike email that can be quickly deleted and forgotten, discarding a letter is an intentional act just as much as it is keeping it. I’ve kept many of the letters mailed to me – I don’t think this makes me a better person, in fact, this collection probably paints a picture of someone who could be diagnosed with crippling nostalgia. But armchair psychologist opinions aside, I hope I can also be analyzed as being someone who holds close the moment you decided to sit down and take a pen to paper to talk to me about the weather.