Friday, November 12, 2010

Mail. The Real Kind.

Remember when getting mail—like, in the metal box out at the curb—was the highpoint of your day?

For me, this was when I was about twelve.  I had a friend named Claudine, who was terribly exotic to me because she had long, dark hair that she wore in a thick braid down her back.  Also, her mother was Belgian and spoke with an accent.  (My mother was from Cleveland.)  Claudine was a brilliant artist who dabbled in calligraphy.  Add to all of this the fact that she had an older sister who introduced her to some of the accoutrements of late-‘60s Berkeley hippiedom: curtains of beads (instead of bedroom doors), incense, peace signs, Simon and Garfunkel records.  We saw each other every day in school, but I always had the feeling that at three o’clock, Claudine walked through an invisible portal and entered a different world where she sat in a garret lit with patchouli-scented candles and nibbled at afternoon snacks of pain au chocolat, brushing her hair until it glistened.

At about this time, my father made me watch a British television series called The Forsyte Saga, an adaptation of the novels of John Galsworthy.  At first, I was furious: The Forsyte Saga was in black and white, and it was on at the same time as Hee Haw.   Shortly, though, I began to be glad for my father’s persistence.  The Forsyte Saga was the very best sort of soap opera, featuring wonderfully drawn characters, magnificent costumes, grand explorations of family and loyalty, love and sex, money and class.  Plus, everyone had a British accent.  For the first—but not the last—time in my life, I was in BBC heaven.

I got Claudine hooked, and pretty soon, we began to write letters to each other, pretending to be various characters from the show.  In our  letters, we became Soames and Irene and Jolyon and Bossiney.  And Claudine’s letters were written in elaborate calligraphic script and featured the added bonus of relevant drawings, often on perfumed tissue paper.  Each envelope was sealed with a dollop of colored, stamped wax.  I couldn’t wait to get home from school and check the mailbox.  On a good day, I might have as many as three letters.

I kept all of Claudine’s letters.  They’re in an old steamer trunk in my garage, along with many others: from Amy, the girl I met at horseback-riding camp, from my father the year I went away to school, from old boyfriends, college roommates, from a girl I met in Washington, D.C. who died of anorexia in her twenties.  I almost never open that trunk, but I can’t imagine throwing away those letters.  They are among my most prized possessions.  They are a window onto my whole life.

I think it is unutterably sad that we don’t write letters anymore.