Of all the things I’m sorry my children missed — music on MTV, The Love Boat on Saturday nights and playing Pac Man at an arcade — their biggest loss is never writing letters.
A 20-gallon plastic storage bin in my basement contains faded notes I saved from everyone I’ve ever loved. Some of the earliest ones are from my childhood best friend, who moved with her family from the Bronx to Chicago. There was no texting, email or monthly long-distance plans; good-bye in 1980 meant something my 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter cannot understand.
The letters we exchanged always began as a series of one-way questions, everything we wanted to know but would need to wait a week or more to find out.
I saved one from her that began:
How are you?
How are the kittens?
Are you going to keep them? (We didn’t. And when I think about that it still breaks my heart.)
In the middle was overwhelming sadness expressed succinctly: “Sorry I left you. I am sorry I can’t come to your birthday. This is the first birthday I can’t come. Maybe you can come to mine.” (We didn’t see each other in Chicago until her wedding.)
The letters would end with the reminder: “Love, Gilat your best friend in the world.”
My 12-year-old daughter’s best friend was in Italy for 10 days this summer and they exchanged dozens of messages like, “what time is it there?” “5 p.m.” “Wow! It is morning here.”
There is no need to wonder about each other’s lives as the answers usually come back in seconds.
There is no need to describe people and places, when they can rapid-fire pictures on Instagram.
There is no need to write letters.
Except for a two-week stint at camp, my daughter never wrote or received any. My son never has.
I saved hundreds and treasure each one.
There's one from my 11-year-old boyfriend at sleepaway camp. I left at the end of July and he stayed until the end of August. Along with the letter, he sent starred shoelaces inside the Snoopy and Woodstock envelope.
“My mother gave me these on visiting day, but I wanted to give them to you instead, you’re a very pretty girl. I love you very much. I will see you next year at sleepaway camp and love you the same.”
The next summer I went to another camp and never saw him again.
At my new camp we were required to write home every week and my father, now dead for more than a decade, wrote back often. I saved every one of his letters; his personality entirely transformed by the ink with humor and expressions of love.
“Dear Kim, The U.S. Post Office will not accept a live lion for shipment. Neither do I think that your counselor would appreciate a live lion at camp, so the next best thing is a lion picture.”
When I read his words, I am a child again and we are together. Time travel is a well-written letter.
Throughout my life he’d sign the letters “I love you, Daddy” no matter my age, and put a smile in the D. Smiling and saying “I love you” were both things I rarely remember him doing in person.
After he died, I cleared out his apartment and found — in date order — every card and letter I ever sent him in a folder labeled “Kimmy,” a name only he used.
From the notes passed to me in high school, I save one from a boy, who I hardly knew. He wrote: “I am writing this to you because I cannot find the courage to say it to you face-to-face. I love you. I have never loved someone as much as you. All you have to do is say “hi” to me in English and I will know you have read my letter.”
He continued for pages, but we never dated. Maybe we were both too shy; or it was too close to graduation.
After high school we didn’t “see” each other again for decades, until I found him on Facebook. Now that I know what he eats, watches on Netflix and where he goes on vacation, I wish I could have continued imagining who he had become.
In college the only way to be in touch with friends at home was paying extra for long distance service in our dorm rooms or using the public pay phone on our hall.
Instead, we wrote letters home to the people we left behind. I saved every letter I got from my best friend.
“Face it,” she wrote, “we’re inseparable. We are practically one person. We need each other, but I think it’s more than that. We like the fact that we need each other. I truly and deeply love you and I always will.”
She now lives across the country and has three kids. We text things like: “Sorry I didn’t call you back. Long day. We are all sick.”
Without a cell phone tethering me to home, I was able to be present with my college classmates, who soon became even more important to me than family. Since most of us moved to different cities across the country after graduation, we kept in touch by exchanging letters.
One of my closest friends, a talented jazz pianist, wrote this to me, shortly before he was in a bicycle accident that left him brain damaged at the age of 22: “I know that there are times when you may feel dissatisfied with yourself, or unhappy with the life going on around you. If this ever happens again, please think about that fact that I believe with my every fiber that you are so excellent.”
Ever since then, that is often what I do.
And I read through my letters.