Love Letters

April 15, 1999

There was a piece in yesterday’s local paper about a novelty hit called “The Sunscreen Song,” nuggets of practical wisdom spoken against a rhythm track. Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich first laid out the ideas in a 1997 column.

“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it,” gives the song its name. Schmich goes on to remind us of things we all know but tend to forget — that we shouldn’t be reckless with other people’s hearts nor put up with people who are reckless with ours, that worrying is futile (like “trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum”), and that we should always read the directions, even if we don’t think we need to. My favorite piece is this: Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

I’m pretty good at that last part. I throw away bank statements, the “keep this part for your records” half of bills I pay every month, and obsolete Pizza Hut coupons. Sometimes I make a mistake. I still have my public school teaching certificate (good through October, 2074), which I know I’ll never need again, but I can’t find my divorce decree, which my present husband says he needs in order to apply for his Social Security benefits.

It’s the love letters thing that has me thinking today, and going down Memory Lane again.

When it comes to gifts, I’m really easy. I neither need nor want fine jewelry, a trip to a vacation paradise, or a brand new car. (I’m told I need a new car, but I don’t want one.) The only thing I want, the only thing I need, is a love letter. My husband says he doesn’t do love letters, and that “Miss you, Love R” on the cover sheet of the manuscript I had to have faxed to me in Ireland five years ago will have to suffice. I say that doesn’t count. I want a real love letter.

I’ve had some. One came in the fall of 1969. The young man said the winter held little promise except for “your sun-smiles and your beauty. . . the one-thing-for-certain in all my confusion.” A few years later a man at war said my remembered image was “the last thought I hold each night, the first I retrieve each morning.”

I can quote those lines because I still have the letters, though I’ve long since lost touch with the writers. I keep them in an accordion file that ties with a ribbon and rests in the bottom drawer of the maple secretary I’ve had for 30 years, used only for storage now because it cannot accommodate a computer.

I did toss a packet of letters received over several years from someone I knew in college, letters I sat at that desk to answer. I’m not sure now they were love letters. But they were letters from someone I loved and who had given some serious indication (in word and deed) he might feel that way about me, although he never actually said that. After graduation we found ourselves beginning new lives 300 miles apart, he as a community organizer, me as a high school teacher. We wrote about our work, our dreams, our plans to change the world. I thought it was only a matter of time until he invited me to join him.

It didn’t happen. Late one summer, when I got home from two months of graduate school in Vermont, I called him, and was greeted by a silky voice that introduced herself as his fiancee. I hung up the phone, went into a depression almost too painful to think about now, married the first man who asked me, and threw away the letters the day we moved into our first new home.

I wish I still had those letters. Holding them in my hand would be a way to hold the people we used to be, idealistic youngsters who had such high hopes. The writer and I are reconciled now, our friendship restored, and we’re back to exchanging notes about our work, our kids, our somewhat revised plans to do what we can in a world still suffering war and poverty and racism. They’re e-mails now, not the kind of letters you tie with a ribbon and keep in a drawer.

What I Love Lettercan hold in my hand is a letter, seen here, which I have cherished since the day I received it. It arrived on my birthday, during the blackest depth of the depression described above. It bore no return address except “somewhere out in the sticks” up beside a faint postmark that seems to be from the Seattle area. And I have no idea, to this day, who it was from.

Oh, I tried to find out. I made a list of all the possibilities — young men I’d spent casual time with waiting for Pittsburgh to make up his mind, even a few former students. I inquired in my circle about who might be in the Pacific Northwest, with no luck.

I’ve used the letter, verbatim, in a short story in which it saves its recipient from a disastrous marriage. The story hasn’t been published, but I’ve imagined that it one day would be, and I’d get some publicity, and the writer of the letter would come forward.

I wish he would. I’d like him to know that it was a big deal, it was worth very much, and that, despite a few setbacks, I have had a happy life, which his letter continues to be a part of.

And I hope he’s always used sunscreen.

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