Love Letters. by
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(84 Stories)

Prompted By Snail Mail

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I am a fair bit late to the prompt this week, having just returned from a three-week vacation in New Zealand.  Talk about First World problems.  But this has also given me the opportunity to read others’ stories first — is that cheating? — and allowed me to experience a #MeToo moment, albeit in a good way.

I too have always loved snail mail letters: the inherently personal nature of them (especially handwriting), the tactile nature of them and the sheer anticipation of them.

In short, and stealing copiously from other Retro writers’ well expressed views, I too have always loved snail mail letters: the inherently personal nature of them (especially handwriting), the tactile nature of them and the sheer anticipation of them. To be sure, the immediacy of email is terrific, and I like to think that one can still express one’s poetic soul in them, but still…

The  correspondence that I had with my girlfriend Susan the summer of my junior year of high school still stands as the apotheosis of my letter-writing enjoyment, to put it in the loftiest of terms.  We were both off to Europe for the better part of that summer: I was going to Italy and Greece with my family and another family we were very close to, and Susan was going to various parts of France with a Putney School group.  We had mixed emotions; excited about our respective adventures but also miserably anticipating missing each other in that usual high school angst/agony of such relationships. Plus, I was convinced that Susan would meet some incredibly cool preppy guy, probably smoking Gauloises, and dump me for him. But we both had clear itineraries for our trips, so were hopeful that we could write back and forth the whole time.

And our correspondence that summer was wonderful in every way.  Sadly, I don’t have the letters from Susan anymore — though I doubt I would share them anyway — but the featured image is a photo of our two-family group relaxing on the patio of our beachfront villa in Greece; I am Joe Cool (albeit not preppy cool) on the far left. And here is a stock photo of the kind of lightweight air mail envelopes we used back then to mail our (equally lightweight) letters in:

Remember?

Even with itineraries, the logistics were complicated, as both Susan and I wanted to make sure that our letters did not arrive at a destination after the other had departed.  Plus, it was difficult to carry on a “conversation,” as opposed to a continuing narrative, never being sure if the last letter had arrived or the current letter might cross with another one. But I cannot overestimate the joy I had of receiving a letter from Susan — or, on occasion, a couple at once — and then immediately repairing to some private space to read it/them.  And it made the anticipation of the next new venue that much more exciting, knowing that the hotel might already have a letter or two awaiting me when we checked in.

And the contents were delightful.  Both of us considered ourselves keen observers and writers — indeed, we had first met when we were both asked to give speeches for the opening of our new junior high school —  and so we really tried to describe our respective adventures brilliantly and wittily. I am sure that, in retrospect (ahem), they would now read as pretentious high school puffery, but cut a couple of smart 60’s high school kids a break.

Moreover, as if by some unwritten rule, we both dedicated at least one paragraph of each letter to expressing our thoughts for each other.  It was undoubtedly tame by today’s sexting standards, but still thrilling. I remember one particularly amusing exchange where Susan indicated a desire to send me a perfumed letter, which was delightfully flattering, but we both admitted that we had no idea how to go about doing so without soaking the letter and probably blurring everything written in it. But, as they say, it is the thought that counts.

The last week of our family trip, we all broke up for separate destinations, and my mother permitted me to fly to Paris alone, where Susan’s group was then decamped.  I decided to make it a surprise, so I didn’t mention it in my letters — I think I suggested I was going to go to Tel Aviv with my mother and grandmother.  The surprise worked perfectly once I tracked down the right hotel, and I was delighted to learn that there was no preppy boyfriend on the scene (indeed, I now realize that a lot of the boys on the trip were likely gay) and less delighted to realize that Putney, despite its highly progressive reputation, took its chaperoning duties on the trip very seriously. But perhaps most importantly — at least for this story — our exchange of letters, written carefully and lovingly, allowed us to continue, and even to grow, our connectedness, even while far apart. And isn’t that the whole point of letters?

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. What a gorgeous story, John! And so great to read a man’s point of view. Which, of course, isn’t that different from a woman’s, and not that I’m surprised. I can imagine each of you seizing on that one paragraph where you expressed your feelings for each other, the excitement in reading it for the first time, then rereading it over and over during your travels. I did a little research and found out that several of our presidents wrote tender love letters to their wives — among them Wilson, Truman, Reagan, and George H.W. I’m curious, though, about why you no longer have them — whether you intentionally got rid of them, lost them, or something else. Because it seems it’s the keeping of correspondence that women have in common. And if that’s too personal a question, I apologize — just say so and I’ll certainly understand. But no matter what, you’ll always have Paris.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks so much, Barbara. And a really good question, for which I don’t have a really good answer. I certainly remember saving the letters for a while, and don’t remember throwing them out. It could be as simple as my mother calling me years later when she moved out of our house and asking whether I wanted anything that will still in my closet before she emptied it and I said “nah.” But, for what it’s worth, I wish I still had them.

  2. Suzy says:

    John, I love this story! And no, it is not cheating to get inspiration from what others have written. There has been a lot of inspirational writing on this prompt! Too bad you don’t still have the letters. Since you were absent for the Get Organized prompt, we don’t know if you are a saver by nature or not. I must say that I’m intrigued by the period at the end of your title. Is it there to indicate the finality of the subject, or is it just the result of New Zealand-induced jet lag?

    I was also struck by the fact that you and Susan sent your letters to each other’s hotels, so you didn’t have to stand in line at American Express. I guess that’s the result of traveling with grown-ups, you had a set itinerary with hotel reservations at each place. I never knew where I was staying until I got there and went to the Accommodations kiosk in the train station, so people had to write to me c/o American Express. Definitely a different type of experience.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. In fact, I tend to be very organized, but that includes “de-acquisitioning” every now and then, as I never want to be accused of being a hoarder. Though I always worry about what I’ve thrown out. (Just went all through that with my retirement, though I doubt I will be crushed if one of the new lawyers can’t find a brilliant memo or letter I wrote a few years ago.)

      As to the period, I just put that in to for a little ambiguity. Is he writing about love letters or is he saying that he loves letters? We guys try hard to be mysterious.

      Finally, thank you for such an inspirational prompt!

      And, yeah, my mother was a grown-up, so we always had very clear itineraries. And Putney’s itinerary was very clear too, presumably so that all the parents wouldn’t worry (too much) about their little darlings.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    You have written about this trip before, John, but thank you for amplifying it. What a lovely way to stay connected to Susan. Writing one’s observation, as well as praise for the other, is very romantic and revealing; very intimate. And as you found, when you surprised her, it did lead to an even more connected experience that all our emailing these days doesn’t necessarily promote. Thank you for sharing this tale with us.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks so much, Betsy. I think it helped that we were both communicators — perhaps to a fault sometimes — and so really wanted to maintain the contact. I have never been accused of being the strong, silent type.

  4. Risa Nye says:

    Oh, those early love letters. . .the thrill of reading and rereading them too. Isn’t a wonder that two people could do all that tracking and keeping logistics with such primitive methods? Enjoyed the read!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Risa. And, yes, we couldn’t believe that all the letters were somehow received. (We actually numbered them when we sent them just to be sure they all arrived and, hopefully, were received in chronological order.)

  5. Marian says:

    Love this story, John. And, what a kick that you numbered the letters. Interesting that you, and possibly many of us, seemed to have had posterity in mind. There was nothing like finding that secret place to read the letters, and I can’t imagine that shielding one’s phone has the same impact today.

  6. Pretentious high school kids maybe, but honestly romantic nevertheless!
    Ah youth!

  7. Bravo John, may we all stay young at heart!

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    My parents wrote what my mother called love letters during World War II and she told me I could read them after they died. Like yours, they ended up being descriptions of two separate experiences as it was impossible to maintain a back and forth correspondence due to mail service. They were young and engaged, so each letter contained passages proclaimed their love for each other. But they were also a window into who they were back then. John, I imagine your correspondence with Susan was a similar picture of young love. Thanks for sharing this.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Laurie. That reminds me of a story my father told about WW II correspondence. As a doctor, he was a fairly high-ranking officer, despite being hardly “regular Army.” As such, one of his assignments was to read — and, if necessary, censor — lower ranking soldiers’ mail before it went out, mainly to make sure that it did not contain classified information, like location or troop movements. He wasn’t thrilled with the task, but had to do it and was occasionally amused. In particular, he told of reading one soldier’s letter to his wife which read approximately as follows, “I don’t want to say I’m horny, but you may be the first woman in history ever to be screwed while holding a doorknob.”

  9. “…miserably anticipating missing each other in that usual high school angst/agony… What a painfully accurate description, John! And I think we’ve all been struck by the remembrance of how carefully we worked on the language of those letters. How telling it all was — the stationary, the handwriting, the girlish dotting of “i’s” with hearts. Handwritten letters, in retrospect, were as revealing as emails are enigmatic. I’m not sure it’s a great trade-off.

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