Taking Pen in Hand

Years of letters

In 1979, when I moved from Ohio to teach at the University of Minnesota-Morris, I was lonely and homesick, so I wrote long letters to my sister, parents, and close friends every week. I couldn’t afford to make as many phone calls as I wanted. One 30-minute weekend call cost around $6, which would be close to $18 in today’s dollars. Four weekend calls per month would add up $72 today. When my oldest son moved to California last June, I thought about those letters again. How much they helped. All of the love they represented.

I don’t know why I saved them when I was 25-29 and again when I was 33-35, but I wasn’t the only one who kept them. My mother and sister did too, which is why I have the ones I sent as well as the ones I received.

Why did I hang onto the letters long after I received them? They are my history. They were a lifeline when I was far from home. They felt valuable even if I didn’t know why. I was in my 40’s before I recognized that writing personal stories (essays, memoir, and blogs) would be my genre.

Writing letters was a creative outlet as well as a way to stay connected. I used a good pen and carefully chose stationery that expressed my taste—maybe something embossed with a seashell or printed with a Sandra Boynton cartoon. Sometimes I invented fake memos and typed them on official university stationery. Writing those letters made me feel more real at a time when I felt isolated and out of my element. Spinning yarns about my boring life made it more bearable.

Alter ego

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading letters was a ritual. Finding a letter in the mail made my day. They were a shot of love, a touchstone that centered me and helped restore my equilibrium. I didn’t tear them open in the hallway by the apartment mailboxes and speed-read them. Instead, I’d fix a mug of tea or crack open a beer, get comfortable on the sofa, and read. Then reread. Save the letter to look at later. Within a day or two I’d begin composing a reply.

Staying close is so much easier now. My son and I talk as often as we want for as long as we want—cell phone calls are cheap. The emails, texts, photos, or mini videos we send each other have so much more immediacy. There’s no need to compress all of our love, questions, answers, advice, and stories into 10 handwritten pages and wait 3-7 days for an answer. It’s quicker to call.

A friend’s letter to me

However, earlier this summer, I was nostalgic for the stories, drawings, and jokes shared in letters. I missed handwriting, which conveys so much personality and I missed the pleasure of selecting good paper.

Late winter cheer

I bought some stationery and stamps, but I discovered writing letters is different now. I no longer dash off a note as I used to. Now I slow down, think through what I want to say. Instead of just selecting and deleting a phrase, I have to scratch it out or start over if I want to reword it. Because they take more effort, letters seem more weighty, as if they should only be used for important messages. But I’m resisting that. I hope to recapture the lighthearted fun of writing a letter and hopefully share the surprise and delight of receiving a letter.

In time, my son will have a stack of letters (albeit a smaller one). They’re visible proof of our love and connection, unlike calls, texts, and emails, which usually exist in the moment and then disappear into the ether.

And really, staying connected is the point.

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You’re the Spark

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As writers, sometimes our own light flickers, but it can be rekindled by a spark from another person. The WordSisters are grateful to you, our readers, for inspiring us and sharing your thoughts with us since 2012.

We wish you a full helping of love, laughter, and good food this Thanksgiving.

 

Thanksgiving 2017

Family will fill the dining room Wednesday evening for Thanksgiving Dinner 2017. We’ve divvied up side dishes so everyone will be carrying something to the feast. It will be a grand gathering.

No holiday has morphed as often in our home as Thanksgiving dinner. Loved ones who shared the day have passed. Friends who joined us at various times left stories we share. Korean students we hosted carry memories of our pecan pie. Babies grew up. Family dogs endured ribbons or costumes with rewards of bits of our meal.

Turkey always appears but side dishes reflect the times. My father’s sausage dressing gave way for my mother-in-law’s oyster stuffing. A former son-in-law only liked a five-minute version made out of a box. For years I rehydrated and doctored up packaged stuffing mixes. Now it is made from scratch. Green bean casserole has given way to Brussels sprouts. Homemade applesauce and cranberry relish still claim menu priority.

Tears accompanied some transition years. Significant tears cried about an empty chair. Exhausted red eyes when traditions overwhelmed my ability to deliver. A parent’s sadness as children are absent a first time. Happy wet eyes when the stories begin flowing among those who are present and it is no longer important that we are gathering on Wednesday night for the whole deal or on Friday for turkey tetrazzini and leftovers.

Wishing all of you a moment of comfort however you spend the coming holiday.

It’s A Different World

A few weeks ago, my job was expanded to include another plant under my human resources umbrella. I introduced myself to the General Manager and the office and production employees. I started with the personal.

“My partner and I have two children. They are 14 years old. We adopted them from Guatemala as infants.”

I shared my philosophy of human resources. I view my human resources department as a service to employees. I explained how they would see me on the manufacturing floor. I welcomed them to stop me and ask for a W2 form, address change form, vacation slip, etc.

Their eyes lit up when they understood that I would come to them instead of them having to come to me.

I marveled that I could bring me to them. The all of me. Specifically, having a partner.

It wasn’t that long ago that I never mentioned the word ‘partner’ at work. I kept the personal to myself. I wanted people to judge my human resources style not my personal life.

What changed for me was that same sex marriage became legal in Minnesota on August 1, 2013.

I am legitimate. I don’t need to hide behind unspoken words. I don’t need to say anything about my personal life. Or, I can.

This past January, Jody accompanied me to a work outing. I introduced her to the President, Vice President and others as my partner.

It’s been 4 years of living in a different world.

It’s a good thing for all of us.

Be Safe. Don’t Die.

img_1806Be Safe. Don’t Die.

I was half way out the door when I heard, “Be safe. Don’t die.” It was Crystel’s voice. I cringed. She was 12-years-old. I thought of turning around to tell her not to say that. That it would be ‘nicer’ to say, “I love you.”

I paused. She was sincere. I didn’t say anything.

Instead, I asked myself backing out of the driveway, “Why am I uncomfortable? That it’s true? That at any moment I could die, be in a car accident, be shot in an airport, or fall on the Minnesota ice?”

Be safe, don’t die, has all the realness one can ask for in an adieu. It means, “I want to see you again. It means, don’t leave me. It means, I want you to come home.”

Jody remembers that it was after Crystel saw the movie, “If I Stay,” that she started saying, “Be Safe, Don’t Die.”

img_1808It was as if she understood that death happens. That people could leave their home and their life could forever be altered.

In the movie, life changes in an instant for Mia after a car accident puts her in a coma. During an out-of-body experience, she must decide whether to wake up and live a life far different than she had imagined. The choice is hers if she can go on.

Crystel is 14 now. She’s still telling me and her other family members to be safe and not to die. I find this comforting. She wants me around. She doesn’t want me to disappear from her earth. “Be safe. Don’t die,” has all the fondness of an “I love you.”

Now, Jody and I also tell her, “Be safe. Don’t die.” Our way of telling her that we love her.