I have kept most of the letters I’ve ever received since I was eight in a bureau at my parent’s house. I actually started collecting letters on my ninth birthday. My parents gave me a birthday card at the dinner table, and right then and there I decided to start a card collection. I then added to my collection a Thank You card my second grade teacher had sent me the year before. My mother had given her a book of quotes as an end-of-year parting gift, but my mother had signed my name on the accompanying card. So, this teacher addressed the note to me. When I was a child, I received many cards that my mom technically should have received. She sent a lot of gifts for me.
The most significant letter I ever received was from an elderly alumna of my school. This school was once a co-ed K-8 elementary school with an adjoining all-girls high school. But in the 80s, the school decided to do away with the high school. A number of formerly single-sex schools in my hometown had become entirely co-ed shortly before, so my school followed suit to remain competitive.
I wrote a letter to this alumna in the fifth grade to learn more about high school in the sixties. Even though this was an assignment, I was genuinely interested in learning about the alumni of my school. Many of my classmates didn’t receive responses, but their alumni at least attended the luncheon. Mine wasn’t at the event. I began to worry that she never received my letter. A month after school ended, I forgot all about the project.
But then one day, I received a mysterious letter in the mail. I didn’t recognize the sender’s name, but the letter was addressed to me. Inside the envelope was a card with writing covering three of its four sides! My alumna had received my letter after all, and she was interested in giving me an overview of her life. She not only answered my questions about her time in high school, she also recounted the major events in her life. She told me about her time abroad in Germany, her husband, her children and grandchildren, and finally the many jobs that she had over the years. She was in her seventies when I wrote to her, so I wonder if she is still alive. This alumna’s response is, to this day, the letter I cherish the most in my collection. I get emotional just thinking about it.
There are many letters in my collection that I cherish for their artistic beauty. Some of the most beautiful cards, however, were merely signed by the sender. Other letters remind me of places I went and people I once knew. But the most important letter in my collection came from a woman I never met in person but who cared enough to share her story with me, a complete stranger.
Letter writing is dying. I didn’t write many letters as a child, but I did collect the letters I received. Emails or private Facebook messages are hard to collect. Maybe there’s an app for that, but I haven’t found one yet. How can we keep memories in this digital age? Pictures are stored on Facebook and Instagram, but where do we preserve the words we send and receive?