I hand wrote letters to my Aunt Dora for years. She typed her responses on an electric typewriter, as she learned to do during a short secretarial course years ago. There was a period, when I first moved to Italy in 1996, when she even emailed me on a “mail station.”
Almost 103 years old, Aunt Dora recently passed. Helping to clean out her house, I discovered a drawer filled with many of my letters. There were those that I wrote to her from summer camp in rural New Jersey as a middle schooler, postcards from my recent honeymoon in Greece, and everything in-between. I had uncovered half of our ongoing conversation, preserved in a drawer.
The process of writing has always helped me to better understand the world and myself. Writing letters – that is, knowing that someone would read them and answer – placed me firmly on one side of a dialogue. There is always the same hope with work yet-to-be-published, but without a loved one on the other side, there’s little guarantee.
The longest letters are those I wrote from Smith College in Massachusetts and Florence, Italy, when I was a year long study abroad student and later worked as an adult. In the letters, I asked my aunt questions about her daily life and described what I was doing and thinking about. I shared details about the language, meals, even the troubles of doing laundry in a foreign country. She’d write back, answering my questions, offering some gossip and always advice.
The letters weren’t our only communication. Aunt Dora would call me, regardless of whether I was in New Jersey or Italy, to check to see what time I received an email or a piece of mail. In fact, many of my letters are noted with a “rec’vd” date that she wrote on the envelope. Precision was important to her. Looking through the letters that she sent me, I see where she erased errors and re-typed the word correctly. She took time to write exactly what she meant.
I wrote the most recent postcards in large print with Sharpie markers. As Aunt Dora would say, I “broke up the monotony” of her days sitting by the window waiting for few visitors. I wished I could visit her more often, but I was no longer living in the same state. The letters, phone calls, and visits every few months would have to stand in. I regularly mailed her short notes and she responded in kind. We proved that distance could be shortened by staying in touch.
Every day around noon I think about calling her to say hello. It is hard to break a regular habit and, if her phone weren’t disconnected, I might, accidently or purposely, continue to do.
I am, quite simply, heartbroken without her.
I cannot talk to her, but I take some solace in writing to and about her. As poet Abe Louise Young wrote here recently about her grandmother, “I’m writing to her still.”
I always tell my students and remind myself that writing is a form of communication. I believe this. Write to each other. The time that it takes to think, write, revise and then send, through the postal service or an email provider, creates something that can be preserved. My aunt and your loved one may not be here to answer, but they continue on in us, by influencing our own words. Let them speak.
Who do you write to?
Who do you write to?