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People Used to Write Letters! And I Have a Box to Prove It

Letters TueNight Margit Detweiler
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(Photo: Courtesy Margit Detweiler/TueNight)

I have a green box. It is filled with dusty old letters, organized by names and folders. Ex beaus. Lost friends. Professors who kept in touch with me after college. Grandparents.

I haven’t looked at this box in probably 20 years. I mean, I’ve seen it sitting way back in my closet, every time I shuffle shoes around. I’ve used it as a sticker repository it over the years (Black Flag! AOL! Obama! Biden ’08!). And it remains.

I know it’s there. But I never open it. Too much old emotional artifact bound to swallow hours of my life. Who has time?

For some reason, this year, I went excavating. I dared to have a peek. Inspired, perhaps, by my parents who have been downsizing and doling out old letters, photos, diaries, books, and matchbook collections to us kids. While going through that old stuff you unearth buried treasures, and, of course, a few rusty nails.

[pullquote]I’d imagine my own shoeboxes of unorganized, dog-eared letters disintegrating, and that over a century their context could be lost! Who are these cute guys, this band Simple Minds?[/pullquote]

My bright green cardboard box is sturdily made, reinforced with bolts — I have no recollection of where I got it. But it served to hold these letters from college and the first few years of my working life.

I was inspired to create it after my first job just after college, working part time at a 19th century natural history museum, preserved as such — the Wagner Free Institute of Science in North Philly. My job there was to do everything from dust off a cabinet filled with arrowheads and tomahawks, to filing William Wagner’s old letters in acid-free paper. Wearing proper cloth gloves, I’d read and file letter after letter about business with notable Philadelphia entrepreneur Stephen Girard, Wagner’s various financial matters, receipts from scientific journeys and organize and tag them with pre-ascribed labels. To a historian it probably sounds fabulous, to this 22-year-old assistant, who preferred punk shows at Khyber Pass…it was a shade dull.

Oddly, I found pleasure in the paper sorting, labeling and careful handling. I’d imagine my own shoeboxes of unorganized, dog-eared letters disintegrating, and that over a century their context could be lost! Who are these cute guys, this band Simple Minds?

So in 1989, I dug into my messy boxes of letters and sorted them into folders by author (these were mainly letters to me; a few were letters I’d written and never sent) and kept it up until about 1996, then scarcely looked at them again.

Perusing these folders now is a wild trip through emotional touchstones, historical details and what people had for lunch. People wrote fucking letters! Yes they did. These weren’t just boyfriends but friends — friends supporting me after a breakup, writing from a trip abroad, chronicling life as it happened.

Some people I’m still in touch with; others I’ve lost all contact; others personalities have evolved so much it’s like they’re someone else.

A smidgeon of what I uncovered:

A letter from an ex, who after breaking up with me, drove himself from Philly to Austin, regaling me with stories. He’d just seen Dave Alvin at Antone’s, he was sad that there was “no scrapple in Texas,” and he was generally mopey. He wrote from the road, “Here I must stop ‘cause I’ll either get sad and cry all over this note pad or I begin describing my motel room in great detail cause nothing else has happened yet.”

A two-page letter from a friend about the style in London and a drawing of Doc Martens.

A small folder (ahem) for an asshole I had a crush on who would write me drunken letters about his new girlfriends. This I can safely toss.

A friend’s emotional, lovely note after some sort of fight. “I would like to resume our friendship, if that’s alright…” and then, “Fax me if you get the chance.”

[pullquote]Perusing these folders now is a wild trip through emotional touchstones, historical details and what people had for lunch.[/pullquote]

Many of these letters are three or more pages, handwritten. A lot of stops and starts. “Ok, I’m back.” Creative doodles in the margins. Sometimes — so ‘90s— on the back of rock show flyers, menus or clever magazine Xeroxes.

Many of these letters aren’t remotely monumental. “Nathan is putting up shelves.” “It’s raining now.”

There were a few friends who liked to test the mettle of the post office (so Gen-X) and addressed mail to: Margit Getwilder, Margit Sailboat, Marge Sailboat. And one just, Sailboat.

And some fascinating discoveries…

My sister apparently wrote poetry.

The brother of an ex was name-checked in a letter by a friend of mine in Pittsburgh FIVE YEARS before I even met said ex. WEIRD.

My 89-year-old grandmother wrote me a beautifully simple letter in 1989, telling me what she was going to have for dinner that night, “A cream cheese and sliced ripe olive sandwich and an apple. I limit myself to one cooked meal a day.”

Grandmom lived to be 101, so maybe that was her secret. I’m sure I’ve read that before, but this time I felt my eyes well up. There she was on paper.

So many of the letters were about filling pages, even if there was nothing really to say. No email, no Facebook and back then, on a meager budget, a long-distance phone call would cost you plenty. Life was so much slower. Conversations happened over the course of days, as you waited for that return letter. Sounds so Jane Austen. But it was only 25-plus years ago. (Whoah, 25 years ago…)

But there’s care, thoughtfulness and meandering that we rarely see anymore, partly because of the digital age; partly because our lives have filled up with so many other priorities.

I can chart the decline of the letter by the heft of handwritten correspondence from significant boyfriends. College boyfriend of four years has four dedicated folders. He went to Penn, I went to Penn State so our relationship was built on letters. (When we graduated and spent significant time together, it all fell apart. Oops.) The second significant dude in the early ‘90s got one folder; the third in the mid ‘90s has a folder of a few letters and printed out emails of note. Printing and saving emails seemed to make sense at the time? I stopped putting anything in there around the late ‘90s. My husband, well, he gets nada. It makes me sad, actually, that we never corresponded by letter. I wonder if things would be different?

Some of these letters and words are faint and disappearing, maybe time for some of that Wagner-inspired, acid-free paper.

These letters are incredibly precious, from people I’ve loved. I don’t want to forget these moments – ok, some I do. I keep telling myself it’s fodder for future stories.

And in one three-pager, my old estranged, not-on-Facebook friend Megan wrote, “Instead of a personal journal I’m going to write to you.” And then in all-caps she wrote, “SAVE ALL OF MY LETTERS! Promise you’ll keep them.”

I promise Megan. And I owe you that bundle of letters.

4 Comments

  1. Rudabeh Pakravan

    I just went through the exact same thing (no folders though, just very disorganized boxes!) and this really resonated with me. Beautifully written.

  2. I love that you have saved and sorted your old letters, which I think after 25 years you can now call ephemera. So Fancy.

    As one who now spends my days digging through old estates picking for treasures, I can say that you are not alone. Nearly every house has a collection (sometimes entire closets full) of letters, cards and other saved scraps. I make it a point to rescue a letter/card or two (along with other little treasures) from every estate sale so now I have several boxes of other people’s letters in my house. Like you, I tell myself it’s for future stories.

    Thanks for sharing the contents of your green box.

  3. Pingback: Dear So-and-So | Tue Night

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