Please Mr. Postman by
100
(181 Stories)

Prompted By Snail Mail

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The Marvelettes had it right with “Please Mr. Postman.” Back in the pre-electronic days, waiting for the postman to come with the day’s mail was agonizing when you were hoping to hear from someone (“Is there a letter in your bag for me?”). If there was nothing it was such a letdown. (“So many days you passed me by/ You saw the tears standin’ in my eye/ You wouldn’t stop to make me feel better/ By leavin’ me a card or a letter.”)

From the time I started going to summer camp in 1959, there were always letters flying back and forth during the winter with camp friends. When you received a letter, it was expected that you would sit down that very day or at worst the next to write an answer, so that it would get there within the week. At least, that’s how we started out every fall. Once school and other activities got into high gear, the speed of replies got gradually slower, but they always came eventually.

The summer after 10th grade, when I went to Mexico, I corresponded copiously with my friend Robin who was spending the summer down the shore (she filled me in on the Jersey gossip, and gave me advice about dealing with my Mexican boyfriend Vicente). After college, I kept in touch with my closest college friends by letters. Long-distance phone calls were too expensive, so it was really the only way to communicate.

Nowadays the only things that come in the mail are bills and ads and requests for money. And the New Yorker. But even the New Yorker can be read online, and usually that’s how I find myself reading it.

To do my research for this story, I started going through boxes of old letters. Then I couldn’t stop. It’s a wonder that I have finally exerted the self-discipline to stop reading and start writing. Just handling these old letters is such a powerful experience. Looking at the envelopes I can easily identify whose handwriting is on each one, even now so many decades later.

There are many picture postcards sent by friends or family who were traveling abroad. I remember every time I went to Europe I always had to make a stop in each new city or country to buy postcards, and then another stop at the post office to buy local stamps and mail them. Even if it was towards the end of the trip, and I was likely to get home before the postcards arrived, it was still necessary to perform this ritual. That also reminds me of going to the American Express office in every European city I visited to pick up mail. There would always be a long line of young people, mostly American, checking for mail. It was a fun place to meet people, but still so disappointing if, once I reached the front of the line, there were no letters for me. Usually there would at least be a note from my mother, and sometimes from friends as well.

The letters and cards in the featured image were in a box of correspondence from 1977-79, all addressed to me in the last house I rented in Davis, before buying a house in Sacramento. It has been quite a trip down memory lane to read them again. In many cases, the envelopes had resealed themselves, so it was like opening a new letter.

Some were congratulating me on graduating from law school or on passing the bar.

There was an invitation for Cocktails on Wednesday, December 20, 1978 from my boss at the Attorney General’s Office and his new wife (it’s the orange rectangle on the left side of the picture, two-thirds of the way down). I wonder if I went or not.

A letter from my friend Rebecca who was an artist and graphic designer is written in her neat and perfectly straight handwriting, on stationery that has her name and address printed on it. She was writing to tell me that she would not be coming to California to visit me, because she broke up with the guy who was going to pay for the trip. She is another person I would very much like to track down, but the multiple times that I have tried, I have had no success whatsoever. There are dozens of women with the same name as hers, and she might not even be using that name any more.

A law school roommate writes to me from Palo Alto with lots of news about the renovation she and her now-husband (who she met through me) are doing on the house they just bought. That is the same house where I went for the first of two New Year’s Eve parties described in Closing Out the ’70s in my 20s. And they are still living in that house now! So apparently the renovations, as annoying as they were at the time, have held up well.

My friend Arlene writes, “Just a short note to let you know that I’m still alive and to find out if you are too.” That letter was written from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, where she had spent the year teaching at Central Michigan University. In the same box are letters from her that were sent from Philadelphia and from Belgium, and none of them are dated (and the postmarks are illegible). I know she had jobs in both of those places, but I can no longer remember in what order or for how long. Not that it matters at this point, but I’m sure at the time I thought I would never forget any of it.

A college friend who has become a lawyer in New York has numerous letters in that box, some several pages long in very small handwriting, written on the stationery of the law firm where he worked. They generally start out with phrases like “Just your basic hello note . . .” and then go on to fill me in on all the doings of our various college friends. Sometimes they refer to something I must have written in an earlier letter. At the time I know I could read them with no problem, but now his tiny cursive is a challenge to my aging eyes.

 

A letter from my college boyfriend responds to one from me, in which I apparently chastised him for not writing. He says, “I confess I was taken aback by your note. I had thought that it was you who owed me a letter, for whatever that’s worth. In any event, for myself I would have thought that the way to improve a relationship or a correspondence is to improve it, not to demand that it be improved. I also am not sure that the application of confrontation tactics to personal affairs is such a good idea, or indeed that it can ever be more than self-defeating, but maybe that is wrong too.” Wow! I am mortified all over again 42 years later, and feel as if I should write to him now to apologize. He did have another chatty paragraph after the one I quoted, and he signed the letter “Love,” so maybe once he got that out he felt better.

There are many letters from my mother, usually containing clippings of newspaper or magazine articles she thought I would be interested in. Now that she is gone, it makes me happy to see her handwriting on the envelope and on the cheery note inside, even if it just says “Thought you would like this article.”

There are some envelopes from my father too, in his distinctive doctor handwriting. The letters are usually about financial matters, sometimes just sending brokerage statements or tax-related documents, but always with a handwritten note stapled to them. The most touching one said, “your mother just left for Colorado. The house is like a morgue.” She must have been going to visit my middle sister, who had had a baby the year before, and since this was before he retired, he hadn’t been able to go with her.

There are many more, from friends that I am still in touch with and from friends that I have forgotten. But with all of them, there is pleasure in the feel of the envelope, the act of taking out the letter and unfolding it, and then reading the words in that person’s distinctive handwriting. With email and texting we have lost all of that, and I miss it.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Remarkable that you saved so much correspondence from so many friends and family, Suzy. Thanks for sharing the content from the boyfriend letter. It is well thought out and written. The two of you must have had quite a back and forth!

    And I appreciate how much fun and how time-consuming your exploration for this writing was before you actually started writing! As I was writing, I was looking for a little case of stamps from my father. It was a snap bi-fold leatherette case with little pockets. I think he had it from his Air Corps days, but gave it to me when I first went off to overnight camp in 1962 (before Interlochen). It contained 1 cent, 5 cent, airmail stamps, sew-on name tags, and I’m not sure what else. I saw it a few years ago, but now can’t find it (troubling, but some things of value, like my dad’s insignia’s and Captain’s ring have gone missing too). On the other hand, I have found other fun things; some I included in the story.

    • Suzy says:

      Well, my saving has to do with the fact that I can never throw anything away, as discussed in the Getting Organized story. That boyfriend was (and still is) a brilliant thinker and writer – one of the smartest people I have ever met. He wrote some wonderful letters the summer we were each traveling separately in Europe with our families. Those were earlier, so in a different box.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    OMG, Suzy, I so related to your wonderful description of sending postcards when you traveled. And the American Express Office — When my husband and I took our 8-week trip to Europe and Israel in 1968, we had to keep checking in each town to see if Fred passed part one of his medical school boards. Unimaginable in today’s era in which my grandkids see every grade online as soon as the test is scored. It’s wonderful that you saved all of those letters. I inherited my parents’ wartime correspondence, and think I saved some special letters, but I have no idea where they are. Must have been fun to read all of those.

    • Suzy says:

      I loved going to the American Express Office, but it must have been stressful when you were looking for Fred’s medical board results. Do you remember what city you were in when you got them? Or did you have to wait until you got home?

  3. Marian says:

    Suzy, this story is inspirational! One of these days I’ll go into my storage boxes and see what letters and cards come out, although, because I moved a lot, even in adulthood, I doubt mine would match the depth of yours. Like you, I might cringe at some of the letters, but I could be moved by others.

    • Suzy says:

      Wow, Marian, I’m so glad my story was inspirational! I have lots more boxes to go through, but now that I’ve finished the story, it will be a lower priority for me. And I’m not throwing any of the letters away (even the ones telling me I didn’t get various jobs I applied for), so it doesn’t count as getting organized.

  4. Marian says:

    Between your story and Betsy’s, I just remembered some letters, in a box somewhere, that my paternal grandfather wrote to friends in Florida, probably in the 1930s. He was an amazing writer, and one of these days I’ll have to dig them out and do a story about them. Glad this theme jogged my memory.

  5. Suzy, you beautifully captured the tactile enjoyment of opening and reading a letter, the warmth to be found in the familiarity of a friend’s handwriting, and the quiet pleasure in reading, and years later rereading, personal correspondence that brings that relationship back into sharp relief.

    All those letters from just 77-79?!? Wow! And I love Rebecca’s stationery…the clever graphics and her penmanship, and I want to know how things turned out with Howard (and I’m afraid I feel the same way about his name…apologies to any “Howies” that might read this). She sounds like such an interesting and fun person. I wish you could have found her!

    That letter from your college boyfriend made ME feel mortified for you, although he does have a way with words that you just have to admire. Did your relationship with him continue for any length of time after that???

    Although from different periods of my life, I ended up with letters I wrote to both my first husband and my mother, so I have both sides of those communications. It’s like having little novellas that detail a relationship through letters.

    This has been a wonderful prompt!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Barb! I just tried again to search for Rebecca, using the middle initial M which I hadn’t remembered before, and I think I found a lead. We’ll see if it pans out. The college BF and I had split up in 1975, but were still friends, and are still occasionally in touch even now. He is an amazing person. I might send him this story with a retroactive apology.

  6. Wonderful Suzy and so happy for you for the joy the letters you’ve saved continue to bring to you.
    We had a sad experience. In 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit New York the basement in our apartment building was flooded, no electricity, phones, cooking gas, elevators, etc making the building unsafe and causing us all to be evacuated for two weeks or so.
    We had a storage unit in the basement where I kept cartons of both mine and my husband’s parents letters, photo albums, goodness knows what other memorabilia – priceless and irretrievable!
    Only good news was from our hotel room at the Marriott a few blocks away we watched Obama win his second term!

    • Suzy says:

      We had some other boxes in our (detached) garage that got ruined when the garage flooded. I don’t know what was in those boxes, I let my husband dispose of them. I felt that I was better off not knowing, because I wouldn’t miss what I hadn’t seen.

  7. Risa Nye says:

    Suzy, this was fun to read. I used to have boxes full of letters from my then boyfriend, now husband; friends from elementary school and high school, my grandfather, summer camp friends, etc., etc. It was such a hard loss when they all burned. But I can still remember how much fun it was to both write and receive that kind of mail. Do we know what our new friends’ handwriting looks like? Probably not! But I can instantly identify the writing of my oldest friends, going back 50 plus years. Excellent prompt!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Risa. Must have been a very hard loss for you, along with everything else you lost in that fire. And you’re right, when we meet people now we have no idea what their handwriting looks like, but I can look at letters from 40 or 50 years ago and know instantly who they are from, without looking at the name.

  8. John Shutkin says:

    Suzy, this is just an amazing collection and description of your letters over the years. And from every possible source: family, friends of all sorts, boyfriends, professional colleagues, etc. What an anthology!
    And I am so impressed that you have kept that all. Indeed, it makes me regret my own failure to do so — including your no doubt brilliant and witty (and legible!) letters to me.
    Your last paragraph really says it all: exactly what such letters meant — and still mean if, like you, one has kept them — and what we may have sadly lost now.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. As I said to Marian, I have a lot more boxes to go through, but now that I have finished the story, it’s harder to justify spending the time. And it wouldn’t be part of getting organized, because I could never throw any of them away!

  9. Suzy, having Retro-known you now for three-plus years, I’m awed by your inclination — and ability — to keep virtually EVERYTHING! I’ve seen many pics from your collection, books, including kids books, I think even clothes. What a treasure trove. I loved your epistolary quotes, especially the abstract/abstruse, almost lawyerly response from the boyfriend — ” I would have thought that the way to improve a relationship or a correspondence is to improve it, not to demand that it be improved,” and his observations on confrontation tactics. Quite artfully done, especially for a boyfriend in those gender-wobbly days. But I’m sure you picked the best of the litter anyhow!

    • Suzy says:

      He WAS a lawyer, or at least a law student, at the time he wrote that letter, but he always thought like a lawyer even in college. And yes, I DO keep virtually everything, much to my youngest daughter’s chagrin. She spent a lot of time last summer trying to help me get rid of stuff, but I’m afraid I’m a hopeless case!

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