One Last Letter

My wife has been cleaning out our attic. Among the things she's been sorting through are boxes of old letters. Some are from friends she hasn't communicated with in years and some from old boyfriends. She's told me a few times that it's hard to throw away letters these days. First, you don't really receive them any more, which makes them almost seem like antiques. Second, the letters are windows into your personal history. I think she's hit upon an ingenious method for deciding what to save or throw away. Some letters are clearly trash, others she wants to keep, but for borderline cases she is asking the writers if they want their letters back.

Getting back a parcel of your old letters is an odd and strangely moving experience. It happened to me recently when letters I had written years ago to a great aunt were returned. I first got close to this aunt the summer after I finished my M.A. I had moved to St. Paul and was working a few part-time jobs to make ends meet. Anyway, it was during this time that she began to write to me. I would get a letter a week and I did my best to respond in kind. Her letters meant a lot at the time. When you’re living alone in a new city, it’s nice to get something besides junk mail. A letter really validates your existence.

I probably would have forgotten about this correspondence, but my second cousin presented me with a large envelope containing all of the letters at my aunt's funeral. I was shocked that my aunt had kept them, but my cousin said her mother always treasured my letters and told everyone how wonderful they were. I set them near my coat and gathered them up when I left the funeral. Later that night, after my wife and son had gone to bed, I went downstairs to the spare bedroom that I use as an office and sat up rereading those old letters.

They were written long ago when I was another person. I had completely forgotten the things I had written. But here's the remarkable thing: my aunt had organized them by date and put them into acetate sleeves. She had even made marks in the margin, underlined books I mentioned, put in the occasional exclamation mark or personal comments in the margin. I was just stunned and amazed by her one last time. The scripture at my aunt's funeral was Corinthians 1-13, which could not have been more fitting. A part of this scripture reads,

Love is long suffering, love is kind, it is not jealous, love does not boast, it is not inflated. It is not discourteous, it is not selfish, it is not irritable, it does not enumerate the evil. It does not rejoice over the wrong, but rejoices in the truth...
It's curious to note that this passage spends more time my describing what love is not rather than what it is. It's not arrogant, selfish, impatient... More importantly, the passage ends with the idea that love is endless, that it comes back to us and we are called to pass it on.

Now I am not someone who gets emotional about death, never have been, but I confess when I saw my aunt's comments on my letters I just sat in the basement and wept. It is probably the first time I have cried in many years. My great aunt had this amazing capacity to love people. I don't think I ever realized how much. Even after she developed memory loss and could no longer recall who I was, she could still love deeply and genuinely just with her marvelous eyes. It's ironic to me that any of us get the love we don't deserve, but it's a true irony that we mostly don't realize it when we do.

And I suppose it's a tiresome commonplace to lament the loss of the handwritten letter in the age of Facebook, Twitter, et. al. Even so, it's no less a loss for being true.


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