With fists, with words, with kindness
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Each year they arrive: two thick envelopes reminding us to elect people who can represent us. They sit on the kitchen table beside the vote-by-mail guides explaining issues and candidates. I notice them when I walk by, promising to devote the next weekend to them.
Eventually my husband and I pore over the texts like rabbinical students holding hallowed parchments. We analyze the words; we argue and agree. In the end we mark what we mark with solid black lines, then fold the thick pages into the envelope. We sign the backs ceremoniously and deliver the sacred documents.
I save the “I voted!” sticker and wear it around town on Election Day: a reminder to others and a badge of honor for participating in a process denied to so many for so long. Knowing that denial of access looms today makes me eager to protect it even more.
I vote as if my life depends on it. Right now that’s not far from the truth.
Ali Zidel Meyers
Los Gatos, California
Being single and without kids, I never sent out Christmas cards. What was the point? But I taped the beautiful cards from family and friends to my fridge, wishing I could be a part of those photos of smiling families.
One year I received a card from a nurse who had rented a room from me the summer before. She included photos of her standing on mountains in Colorado and near the ocean in Hawaii. No spouse. No kids. The greeting read, “Spread Joy!”
Inspired, I put together my first Christmas card, including pictures of my cats, my recent travels, and my friends, with a Rumi poem on the back. I mailed out twenty, then thought of twenty more people I could send one to, then twenty more.
I sent out ninety-nine Christmas cards that year. The only person I wasn’t able to send one to was my mother, because she had died unexpectedly in September.
I knew she would have been pleased with me for sending out cards even though I didn’t have a family to pose with. I missed her. I missed the words of encouragement I could always summon for her even when I had little for myself. So I sent her a card anyway, mailed to her last address. It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t actually get it.
Two months later I received a letter from a woman named Dorothy who had moved into the apartment where my mother had died. Dorothy was in her seventies, she wrote, with little family left. My Christmas card was the only one she’d received that year, and, selfishly, she had opened it.
“That card, with that strong young woman, was the highlight of my holiday,” she wrote. “Is that woman you? Your mother must’ve been so proud.”
If I heard the familiar drone of a Cessna 185 coming in for a landing, I’d have to ski two and a half miles as fast as I could to be sure to get my outgoing mail in the bag on time.
Sled dogs and snowmobiles would be tied up around the mail shack. The men would be in one circle, talking about snowmobiles, and the women in another, talking about everything else. Kids knew to hide behind the shack when the plane took off, so as not to get blasted by snow. It was our weekly community gathering, no matter the weather, and the most special day of the week. For many it even warranted taking a bath the night before.
One day, when it was forty degrees below zero, one of my neighbors brought a load of cardboard beer boxes and lit them with a match so we could stay “warm” while we waited for the mail plane, which had been delayed due to fog. He drank the cans of beer he had in his pockets, and we chatted happily long after the cardboard was gone.
The state eventually enlarged our airstrip, and mail started coming twice a week. We got phones, and then e-mail and Internet. People zipped in and out of town on their snowmobiles at random times. Mail day was now merely a time to collect bills and political ads.
I don’t go to get mail much anymore, but I still notice the drone of that Cessna overhead.
I was an honor student and co-captain of the cheerleading squad, but by the time I was seventeen, I’d begun rebelling against the expectations that I be a “good” girl. I ventured to the dark side by choosing a “bad” boyfriend.
I’m sure my parents hoped I’d soon get over the infatuation, but I didn’t. I was pregnant when I gave a speech at my high-school graduation. Since abortion was illegal back then, I planned to fly to Puerto Rico with my boyfriend to obtain one. I forged my mother’s name and withdrew from our joint bank account some money I’d been awarded for academics. Then I lied to my parents about visiting a friend, and off he and I went.
After the abortion I had an attack of conscience. I wrote my parents a heartfelt confession from Puerto Rico, begging their forgiveness and expressing the hope that we could mend our relationship when I got back. As soon as I mailed the letter, however, I began to doubt the decision. I dreaded my return to the States.
When I drove up to my house, the mailbox was full. I remembered that my parents had planned to go out of town for a few days. In the stack of mail was my letter, which I hastily retrieved, relieved that I could keep that part of my life to myself.
I stayed with that boyfriend for way too long, even after he became physically abusive. I was so committed to my self-destructive path that my parents probably wouldn’t have been able to help me anyway, but I do wonder how my life might have been different if they had received my letter.
While earning my master’s degree, I taught undergrad writing to help pay my tuition. Wanting my students to think about their futures, I gave an unusual final exam: I had the students write a letter to themselves three years in the future, seal it in an envelope, and then list an address where it would likely still reach them three years later. Most listed their parents’ address.
Three years later I mailed the sealed letters. A few were returned as undeliverable, but most reached their destinations. To my delight, former students would occasionally e-mail to thank me for sending the letter. Some said they’d forgotten they’d even written it.
One e-mail came from a former student’s mother. The student, who had been in my very first class, had died nine months earlier. His mother was understandably confused to receive a letter in his handwriting.
Her message broke my heart. I hadn’t even considered such a possibility. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have given the writing prompt in the first place. I apologized to the student’s mother for reopening a wound and shared with her my recollections of her son, who was bright, enthusiastic, and cheerful. I told her his e-mails to me always ended in “Have a solid weekend!” The assignment was meant to encourage students to think about the future, I explained, not to cause anyone hurt.
She assured me the letter meant a lot to her, and that she’d already shared it with her son’s father, sisters, and grandparents. She said it was a “blessing” and encouraged me to continue the tradition.
I’ve since stopped teaching. I mailed out the final batch of letters last year. Out of everything I did as a teacher, nothing affected me as deeply as asking my students to write a letter to themselves.
Durham, North Carolina
I was a good girl from a middle-class Chicago suburb who wanted to live the wild life. So I took a summer job as a bartender in Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska. It was 1972, and I was twenty-three years old.
To get there, I flew over glaciers larger than Rhode Island. On my days off I roamed the park with people who’d grown up backpacking. An English naturalist taught me the wildflowers, animals, and rhythms of the land. I ate moose stew. I made love in the mosquito-buzzed evenings.
Phil, a mountain climber, appeared in midsummer. I was impressed with his resilience and competence. He promised me the sort of adventures I craved. We lived in a vacant tree house, where he taught me how to survive in below-zero temperatures, bake bread over a woodstove, and cut a hole in inches-thick ice to fetch water. He also expected me to agree with him about everything. For the most part I did what he asked, but by the time we moved to an isolated cabin on an abandoned mining claim, I’d begun to chafe.
We had no car, no electricity, and no running water. We were four miles from the Alaska Railroad tracks, where we sometimes flagged down a train for a thirty-five-mile ride to town to get our mail: unemployment checks, magazines, and personal letters. I was especially eager to hear from my mom, who had terminal cancer. Despite her diagnosis she’d encouraged me to work at McKinley. “You need to live your life, Marnie,” she’d said.
Two months after Phil and I had settled into his cabin, I got three letters from my dad, each more urgent than the last. The final one said, “Come home NOW!”
When I told Phil I needed to take care of my mom, he said, “I’ll bet you don’t even love her. I’ll bet you’re only going out of duty. I need you here.” That’s when I knew I would leave him.
I wrote my dad to say I was coming home, and the next morning I asked Phil to snowshoe to the railroad tracks with me so I could get my letter on the train. He refused. So I strapped on my snowshoes and headed into the wilderness alone.
Without Phil in front of me I was terrified, but I felt my mother’s presence: her frosted hair, her tapered fingers, the intricate fishermen’s sweaters she knit while watching TV, her dangling cigarette, her love. I touched my letter, hoping she would soon know I was coming.
At the train tracks I found a stick and wrapped the letter around it with twine. Maybe an hour later Phil climbed the hill. He was not contrite, nor supportive, but he was quieter — and, at that point, superfluous.
The engine finally came up the long straightaway. As it neared, I jumped and hollered, signaling I had mail. The engineer waved but couldn’t stop. He did slow down, and the guys in the baggage car slid open the doors — seconds too late. They pointed toward the rear of the train. On the caboose’s apron stood a man, arms extended. Just one chance.
I tossed the stick with the letter to him. He reached, bobbled, and finally clasped my letter to his chest. I danced and shouted. And then he vanished into the afternoon.
A plain postcard with unfamiliar handwriting stands out as one of the most memorable pieces of mail I’ve ever received. I didn’t know the elderly man who’d sent it. He’d gotten my name and address from the logbook at his motel.
Months earlier I had driven from the Great Lakes to the West Coast, traveling beside the Columbia River at one point to fulfill a childhood dream born of listening to Woody Guthrie sing, “Roll on, Columbia, roll on.”
Around midnight I was just about to give up hope of finding a place to stay when I came to a gritty industrial town.
The motel was a group of small cabins tucked down a dirt road. The screen door to the office was unlocked, a light still lit. I rang a bell on the counter. A gaunt man greeted me and said he had a cabin available. He let me know there would be trains going by in the night.
The cabin had a shower, a comfortable bed, and, yes, it backed up to the railroad tracks. That was fine with me.
When I got up early to continue my trip, I looked for something on which to write a few words of gratitude to the owner. I made do with the paper doily under the bedside lamp.
Months later his postcard arrived in the mail. The motel owner just wanted me to know no one had ever written him a thank-you note before.
East Lansing, Michigan
My husband and I fell in love through the prison mail. We numbered our letters so we would know if one went missing: 783 from him, 751 from me. Eight years of correspondence.
In the early years we were not allowed in-person visits and were permitted only one fifteen-minute phone call a month. Mail was our lifeline. My homemade cards — decorated with rainbows, sunrises, mountains, and flowers — helped break the monotony of his life in a supermax prison. Deprived of natural sunlight and fresh air, he enjoyed hearing about even the most mundane details. I once wrote about a leaky toilet and then felt guilty for bothering him with such a trivial problem. He wrote back that my leaky toilet helped him stay connected to the outside world.
There were things we couldn’t write about because the mail passed through a prison censor. It was humiliating to bare your soul and share your weaknesses, knowing some bureaucrat would scrutinize it. But sometimes I said the hell with it and wrote what I needed to write.
I kept every letter: next to my bed, ready to be grabbed in case of fire. As the years passed, one file box became two, then four.
Today, under the pretense of eliminating contraband, many prisons contract with private companies to handle mail. After much delay the prisoner receives a photocopy of the letter, for which he or she may be charged. It’s one more way of putting money in the pockets of corporations that cage human beings. Some prisons have inexplicably banned colored paper and envelopes (even off-white may be rejected), photographs, and children’s crayon drawings.
When my husband and I were finally allowed to visit face-to-face, we got to know each other on another level. And when he got home, our relationship shifted again. It wasn’t easy, and at times we wondered if it would last, but we’ve been together for twenty-five years.
We still have those letters. He wants them kept for posterity. I want to destroy them before we die. They were written under the most trying circumstances, not to be shared with anyone.
My mom promised to write. So did I. No doubt she was crying, while I was excited. As a new Peace Corps volunteer, I was leaving for a remote spot in the middle of the Indian Ocean: the Seychelles Islands.
This was before the Internet. We had no phone. Our only form of communication on the island, a thousand miles from the nearest landmass, was the mail, which took at least two weeks to arrive from the States. I began writing to her within days of my arrival: of palm trees as tall as redwoods, of fruit bats that darkened the skies every evening, of cowrie shells that littered the beaches. I told her how our Mauritian neighbor prepared a meal with peppers so hot the sweat poured down our faces as we laughed and drank late into the night. I told her I missed her.
Her letters came every week without fail for two and a half years. She wrote of life in Oklahoma City: the latest book-club selection or the roses she struggled to grow in the brutal plains heat. Her letters became a tether to a life that felt like a distant memory.
I was twenty-four when I boarded that plane — the same age she had been when she’d left her dirty, steel-mill hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the first time. All she had known until then were the few blocks she walked to school and the lingerie factory where she had worked since the age of fifteen. But she took a train to New York City — terrified and exhilarated — to visit a man and his family.
She spent more than seventy years with that man, my father. She traveled the world with him. She raised five globe-trotting children while having a career as a psychotherapist. She slipped out of this world just before the coronavirus turned it upside down.
During these odd and troubling days, I wish for just one more letter from my mom.
Greenville, South Carolina
In 1967, when I was fifteen years old, I sent my boyfriend a letter. He was on vacation with his family, and I wrote to him on fancy stationery sprayed with my favorite perfume, Ambush. He was almost seventeen.
A few days later my mother answered the phone, and I listened in on the conversation. Before the call was over, I knew my boyfriend had died of anaphylactic shock. He’d had an allergic reaction to something — no one knew exactly what. His parents weren’t even aware he had any allergies.
I know he received my letter. I know he died in a hay barn. I know there were several things he could have been allergic to in that barn. But I blamed my letter, irrational as that was, because it gave me a tangible reason for his untimely death: I had put too much perfume on the paper, and that had caused his anaphylactic reaction and death.
It didn’t help that I was Catholic. Prior to his going on vacation, I had prayed on my hands and knees that God would bring him safely home. He didn’t. I lost my belief in God that day. Unfortunately, being an obedient Catholic girl, I kept the guilt and blamed myself for more years than I care to admit.
Five years ago I was diagnosed with stage-IV brain cancer. The usual prognosis for a patient in my condition was around eighteen months.
After surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, I was left without peripheral vision in my left eye and a long road of radiation and chemotherapy ahead. As I began treatment, the FDA approved a new technique that involved using electric current to disrupt the tumor cells’ ability to divide. Along with chemotherapy, I had to walk around with electrodes attached to my scalp and a heavy battery in a backpack. I looked like a sci-fi monster with all those wires coming out of my head.
One day I came home from work, sat on the bathroom floor, and cried desperate, gut-wrenching wails. I called my best friend, who asked, “How clean are your toilets?” Her question stunned me. I confessed that they were very clean. I’d been doing household chores incessantly to distract myself. She told me to quit cleaning toilets and go live. We laughed, and I felt renewed determination.
Soon after that, the encouraging postcards started to arrive. My friend knew I wanted to stay as positive as possible, and since she lived a few hours away, she decided the best thing was to mail me a postcard every day.
Each one began with “Hola, Chica!” and there was usually a heart drawn in the corner. Some she sent from places she had traveled for work. Others had fun facts, superhero cartoons, or beach scenes on them.
Even after I was in remission, the postcards kept coming. I had three tall stacks of them, and my daughter strung some of them on wire with clothespins so I could enjoy them all over again. I was about to tell my friend she could stop sending them when I developed a bad cough and trouble breathing. At the emergency room the doctors diagnosed a partially collapsed lung and a large mass.
Now I’m battling breast cancer. It isn’t curable, either. The most that can be done is to keep it from spreading and hope to shrink it.
The postcards continue to arrive, after five years. Each day my friend pauses for a few minutes to cheer me on. Knowing she’s in my corner, how could I not keep fighting?
Stanley, North Carolina
The best teacher I ever had was a twenty-four-year-old New Yorker named Jay, who I later learned had become a teacher to stay out of Vietnam. At sixteen I was one of his best sophomore English students, and, like many of my female classmates, I developed a crush on him.
Though his students adored him, the adults in my conservative Ohio hometown thought his liberalism was dangerous, and they made his life intolerable. After two years he moved with his wife to Hawaii. Before he left, he wrote his address on the chalkboard and invited students to write, promising to reciprocate.
Jay and I became pen pals, and I wrote him until I was the last of his former students to keep writing. My letters were detailed narratives about my life as a young mother and a McDonald’s shift manager. Jay’s were less about his life and more about politics and ideas.
Our correspondence enabled us to get to know each other perhaps even more intimately than we would have if we’d physically been together. As fate would have it, we said our first “I love yous” in letters that crossed in the mail.
We’ve been together now for forty-three years. Those hundreds of letters are preserved in a hurricane-proof container in a closet. Every couple of decades I reread them and fall for my pen pal all over again.
Two days before Halloween 1988, my mother died suddenly after a brief hospital stay. She’d recently retired and finally had time to focus on her passions, one of which was knitting. Separated from her by more than eight thousand miles, I was unable to attend her funeral. Although we’d had a somewhat prickly relationship, I was overwhelmed by grief and regretted many things I’d said and left unsaid.
Thanksgiving came, and I tried for a normal holiday with my family. A week before Christmas the mailman deposited a large box on our doorstep. The return address was my mom’s. The postmark showed she had shipped it just days before her death. My husband placed it under the tree.
On Christmas morning I could not bring myself to open the box. My seven-year-old daughter was incredulous that anyone could leave a gift unopened, but I feared my reaction would ruin our celebration.
A week later, alone, I finally opened it. Inside were books for my husband, games for my daughter, and a hand-knitted turquoise sweater for me: Mom’s first retirement project. I have it still.
Cary, North Carolina
While attending college in my hometown of Bucharest, Romania, I decided to drop out and apply for an undergrad scholarship to study in the U.S. For two years I borrowed every SAT prep book from libraries and ran through practice tests until I knew all the answers. I took the SAT three times, trying for a score worthy of a scholarship. I even jettisoned most of my friends so that I could focus on my dream.
Applications had to be postmarked by December 31. When the day came, none of the drafts of my entrance essay seemed as poignant as the example essays I’d read.
I’d been awake for seventy-two hours, working on my latest draft, when my dad gently reminded me that the post office closed at midday on New Year’s Eve.
Every surface in the one-room apartment where my dad and I lived was covered with applications. Delirious from lack of sleep, I started shoving papers into envelopes, trying to keep the names of the colleges straight. At 11:30 am I threw all thirty-five applications into a bag, then collapsed in exhaustion. I would never make it to the post office in time.
My father already had his shoes on. He grabbed the bag and darted out the door. I dragged myself to the window to watch him run down the street, shouldering the weight.
Later I learned he’d fought with the post-office staff, who’d wanted to close early. They claimed the bills he wanted to pay with were no good, and another man in line offered to exchange his money with my father, who did not back down until every one of my applications was postmarked December 31.
I earned a full scholarship and went on to study film and computer science in the U.S. I’m now an American citizen and have called this country home for the last thirteen years. None of it would have been possible without my father, who was strong when I couldn’t be.
Santa Monica, California
© Scott Russell
In 1970 I graduated from college with no marketable skills and embarked on a period of unemployment, food stamps, and sleeping on friends’ couches in Berkeley, California. I took a test to become a postal carrier, and the day after I was fired from my job as a waiter, an offer came to work as a substitute carrier in the San Francisco post office.
I found I liked being a mail carrier. I’d get up early and walk through the beautiful (and affordable back then) downtown with almost no one on the streets. My routes took me to all parts of the city, and I got to know every neighborhood, from Pacific Heights to Haight-Ashbury to the projects.
My fellow mail carriers were a diverse and friendly bunch. Some had worked for the post office for decades. Others were artists, musicians, and writers just earning a living until the next opportunity came along. Carrying thirty pounds of mail up and down those hills got me into pretty good shape. I learned how to deal with dogs (dog biscuits) and the best places to grab lunch.
At some homes women would peer through the window, waiting for the letters I delivered from Vietnam, often in a thick envelope with a military return address. I assumed a husband, brother, or father was in the service. I was against the war but felt sorry for these folks. One woman met me every morning with a glass of water and a pastry. I always tried to go to those homes first.
My time as a carrier ended when, after two years, I got accepted to medical school in New York. I’ve had a great career as a physician, but I’ll always appreciate how the post office provided me with employment when I needed it and with experiences that shaped me for the rest of my life.
I learned the value of letters through my mother, who had left behind her own mother, nine siblings, and a large extended family in Ireland. In the 1940s, whenever a letter arrived from “home,” everything in our Queens, New York, apartment came to a halt till she read it.
The crinkly blue airmail envelopes brought news about loved ones she expected never to see again. Sometimes it was news she didn’t want to hear. These were the days of “poor Ireland,” long before tourism brought prosperity to the country. Every St. Patrick’s Day an envelope of dried shamrocks arrived from one of Mom’s sisters. Mom revived them in a bowl of water on the windowsill.
During the holidays our mail — easily forty Christmas cards a day — spilled onto the hallway floor. Decembers in New York were bitterly cold, and my father would offer the mailman a shot of whiskey to warm him as he continued his route.
In school I started a correspondence with a friend in our apartment building who lived one flight up: My father rigged a clothesline on a pulley so that we could attach our letters with clothespins and send them from our kitchen windows. The envelopes were adorned with rhymes and codes like “D-liver D letter D sooner D better” and “SWAK” (Sealed with a kiss).
By fourth grade I wrote regularly to a classmate who had moved to New Jersey. My visit to her house was my first solo train trip. Coming home, I exited the train onto a deserted platform at Penn Station. My parents were not there to meet me. I sat down on my suitcase, took out a piece of paper, and began writing to the friend whose home I’d just left. My frantic parents found me absorbed and oblivious.
My teens brought my first grown-up mail: acceptance and rejection letters from high schools, colleges, jobs. And, of course, love letters. Read and reread, savored, tucked under my pillow.
During the pandemic I have resurrected my practice of writing letters. When my handwritten envelope appears in someone’s mailbox, I know it will be a welcome relief from the solicitations, advertisements, and bills. Sitting in a quiet spot to write, I can develop my thoughts more easily than in a conversation. I can take the time to discover and then say what I mean. Often the letter reveals as much to me as it does to its recipient.
I didn’t know what it was like to be around someone who was dying until I visited my brother, Ted, in Austin, Texas, three years ago. I didn’t know about the cruel quickness of stage-IV pancreatic cancer. I didn’t know about the dulling effects of morphine.
My only sibling, Ted was twelve years older and had left for college when I was six. We never lived in the same city again. In many ways I didn’t know what it was like to have a brother. But after I went to college myself, he and I became pen pals. It was the 1970s. He was thirty and a hippie who’d “dropped out” of society. I was eighteen and trying to fit in. Both misfits and loners, we connected across the miles, writing long, soul-searching letters that wrestled with philosophical questions. I included drawings and poetry in mine, and he sent me his song lyrics.
Years later, after Ted was diagnosed, I spoke to him on the phone about visiting. “I may not be as erudite when you see me next,” he said in a slurred voice. The morphine eased his agony but stole his words. By the time I flew in from St. Louis, his dosage had increased twice. He and my sister-in-law picked me up at the airport, and on the way home he was unable to say more than the names of grocery stores and car dealerships.
The visit consisted of us watching television, something we’d rarely done, while he grabbed at invisible objects. I didn’t know how to be with my brother without words. On my last night there I brought out a few of the letters Ted had sent me when I was in college, thinking he might like to hear them. I began with some lyrics he’d written more than forty years before: “What’s to become of me? What will be, will be . . .”
“. . . just like tautology,” he replied, completing the line. “Words stillborn, not free.”
I looked down at his writing and continued, “So, I went to ‘Information’ . . .”
“. . . wanting all there was to know,” he picked up. “But instead of clear light vision, confusion fell like snow.”
Back and forth I read and Ted recited until all eight verses were done. We smiled, and he stared into my eyes with the piercing intensity I remembered from my childhood.
The next morning I said goodbye to a speechless man slumped over in a wheelchair. He died five days later.
St. Louis, Missouri
After I put out an ad looking for people who wanted to correspond with an inmate, I received letters from all around the U.S. and Britain. The people who wrote to me were not church ladies, like I’d expected, but mostly bored women in their twenties who were between jobs or boyfriends. They kept up our correspondence until they found something more interesting.
Being cut off bothered me at first, but after a while I didn’t take it personally. I’ve made two real friends: a woman in Britain who has been writing me for almost four years without fail, and another I’ve stayed in touch with through my own shameless persistence.
Because I’m an inmate, mail means more to me than it does to most people. My grandfather died in a letter. So did my dog.
When criminal types started spraying stationery with drugs, the state changed its mail policy. Everything we receive is now scanned and shredded, even cards and photos. There is no more colored ink, no more lingering scent of perfume. Mail used to be an artifact from another world. The people I cared about could send me a piece of themselves. That’s been replaced with reproductions.
There is something special, though, about words on a page — how you can see someone in their handwriting.
When I was a freshman in college, my best friend from high school shot himself in the temple and fell into a coma. It was uncertain whether he would live. I walked around campus like a zombie, listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue on my Walkman. I hardly slept.
I hadn’t met anyone at college I could talk to about my friend, nor did I have family support. The only person who knew what I was going through was my girlfriend, and she was far away. I spent so much of my student loans on long-distance phone calls that I could barely afford to eat. I skipped classes and began flunking tests.
One morning my girlfriend called to tell me my friend had died overnight. I went to English at 9 AM, then to astronomy in the planetarium, where I sank into a movie-theater-style seat and gazed up at the vast Milky Way, feeling very small. I fell into a deep sleep for the first time in a week.
When I reached the noisy lobby of my dorm that afternoon, a letter from my friend was waiting for me. My hands shook as I removed the handwritten pages from the envelope. It was a breezy message, asking about my new life but divulging little about his own. Though he’d mailed it the day he shot himself, he’d altered the date at the top of the first page, and this small detail has haunted me for years. It matched the day I received it: the day he died.
Asheville, North Carolina
I spent my childhood summer vacations at my maternal grandparents’ home in a village near the Adriatic coast of Italy. We had access to the Apennine Mountains, beaches along the eastern coast, and weekend markets in town, but for me it wasn’t a relaxing retreat. I spent six anxiety-ridden weeks waiting by the mailbox for letters from my best friends. Being apart from them was almost too much to endure.
The whole time I was in Italy, my thoughts revolved around coming back to the States so my friends and I could park at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, drink strawberry wine, share a menthol cigarette, and cackle at the fact that we were cutting tap-dance class. (It didn’t occur to us that, since we were the only students, the instructor might notice she had no one to teach.)
I’ve long since lost contact with those friends, but every so often I dig out their letters and try to figure out what was so important then that I couldn’t take the time to enjoy the beautiful Italian mountains or the sound of sheep bells clanging. Those are the moments I should have cherished, not the ones I spent drinking behind the dilapidated church youth van.
At least I still vacation in the same village at the same house. The rickety mailbox is still there, but it no longer captivates my attention.
For ten years I had dates but no significant relationships to speak of. Then I met Andrew. On our first date we went to a swimming hole and had a picnic. He was sweet and gentle, and we took things slow.
After the first night I spent at his house, I watched him wake up in the morning, put on his glasses, and smile at me. I went to work afterward but couldn’t get him out of my mind. I wrote a note to him on a postcard and dropped it in the mailbox.
After that, whenever I thought of him for no reason, I sent him a postcard. Later I’d notice the cards on his car’s dashboard or on his bedside table.
It took me a long time to gather up the courage to say I loved him. On Valentine’s Day I was too nervous to write, “I love you,” on his card, so I skipped it, thinking I’d say it out loud in person. When I received my valentine from him in the mail, he’d written, “I love you,” at the bottom.
It seemed silly to mail him love notes after we moved in together, but I still did. If they were in the box when I checked the mail, I’d leave them for him to find. Or I’d tuck a postcard into the book he was reading, or under his pillow. Sometimes I’d find a letter addressed to me on my dresser or in my bag.
Eventually we started to bicker, then fight with words that were hard to forget. We had a bad fight last night. Today’s his birthday, and I’ve sat down to write him a card. It feels like maybe this is the end. It used to be so easy to tell him the ways I admired him, or to share memories that made me smile or feel loved. But now I’m struggling. What do you say when you love someone and can’t seem to make it work?
Pittsboro, North Carolina
As a Peace Corps volunteer in my early twenties, I lived in a rural village in Senegal and spoke to the locals in French and the local language, Diakhanké. Communicating was difficult because of the stutter that had always plagued me.
Hiding it by changing words mid-sentence wasn’t possible when I didn’t know many words. My stutter was on display for all to see. I was afraid I sounded stupid.
One day another volunteer’s mother came to visit and brought a friend who happened to stutter, too. She told me about a U.S. organization for people who stutter, and she got me on their mailing list. When their newsletter arrived in the mail, I read about people who lived bold, confident lives despite stuttering. I wrote a letter to the editor to thank him, and he published it with my address.
The letters started coming in: from a fatherly man from Texas, an octogenarian in Connecticut, a speech-language pathologist in California, a young Palestinian living in Oregon. In essence they all said the same thing: “I’m proud of you. I’m here for you.”
I corresponded with many of those letter writers for the rest of my time in Senegal. They understood me in a way my family and friends never had. I learned I was not alone in my struggle, and that I possessed courage and strength. Mail from a handful of strangers transformed my life.