Every so often, usually when I can’t think of anything better to do, I decide do a purge. Typically this is centered in a closet, but also can extend to cabinets, drawers or bookshelves. The overriding theme of all these places is the fact that they are used to store things; often not seen or noticed again for quite a while. Possibly years.
All of my life, anytime I have started a project like this, I have found myself easily distracted by the time capsule this storage method creates.
Today wasn’t any different; I had decided to clean and organize some shelves up in the necessary room. I had already moved (and alphabetized) our DVD’s, and a battered but loved collection of paperback books, when I spotted a worn and damaged hatbox on the top shelf.
Inside, it was filled to the brim with old letters in no particular order. Most were from my mother, which began with a thank you note for a mother’s day tea between the two of us when I was living in my first rental. There were many sweet letters when she became a first time grandmother, written to me the new mother. As I delved deeper, there were surprises. There was a letter from my friend, describing his difficulty coming out as a gay man in the late 80’s; his words drew a picture of a very different time not long ago at all. There were postcards with exotic stamps were from my college roommate now a photographer and adventure traveler to unique, far-away places few people ever visit. I have to grin when I think of how she almost flunked her first photography class.
Mixed in, I found a note from my grandmother, referred to as Mimi. She was very fond of letter writing and I could count on mail from her about once a month while I was in school, along with the occasional care package. For some reason, I only have a handful of her letters. Most were just basic daily life types, telling me about her and my grandfather’s health and what she was doing. Often she enclosed a newspaper article about something she thought would interest me.
One letter in particular held a treasure; a typed copy of her Gumbo recipe. Born and raised in Louisiana, gumbo was a standard meal in the days before Food Network and Emeril Lagasse. She probably learned to make it as a child; always from memory. At some point, I had asked her for a recipe and being a loving grandmother, she took a stab at it; although she was very unsure of the measurements and ingredients were based on what she had on hand.
My favorite paragraph was this:
“When we lived in Southwest Louisiana, the people there made Gumbo from any meat-duck was a very popular ingredient. We paid twenty-five cents for a duck; ten cents to have it dressed.”
Paying extra for convenience seems like such a modern thing, but it really is universal through the ages.
Her family didn’t have much money at all growing up (but there were plenty of kids), so I always wonder how often she got to avoid cleaning that duck.
At the bottom were letters from my father, written to me while I was at the University of South Carolina. I knew what they said before I reread them and had kept them for a reason (although I was tempted to throw them out when I originally received them). There were only three. The first was encouraging, a father telling his daughter that while enjoying college and getting a variety of experiences was important, studying and doing well in classes was more so. The last was the hardest and most honest. He expressed his disappointment in grades, decisions I was making, and the consequences I seemed to be ignoring. He was blunt and to the point; this is true of his character regardless of situation. I am sorry to say that I ignored his wisdom at the time as teens/young adults often do with parents, even though I knew he was probably right. Turns out he was; and I keep them to remember this.
The writing on the pages and dates on the postmarks feel like I am reaching out to touch each sender, frozen in time. My brain floods with visual images and memories that were half-forgotten until these tactile reminders. I can even feel the emotions I felt then. Reading a saved or even printed email is nothing like this. An old email is a faint whisper of the sender’s personality, flat and uninteresting. Hand written pages are a treasure, and as the world continues to shift farther away from this communication, I often wonder if we will miss them once they are gone forever.