I love handwritten notes and letters. Sweet sentiments written on birthday cards, the reds and greens and glitters of Christmas cards sent from near and far, notes attached to beautiful flower bouquets, and even random scribbles on concert tickets and bubblegum wrappers all have long been sentimental.
My favorite notes and letters have always been those written at many a school desk in the 70’s and 80’s. One was never finished until it was pleated into a neat, little, packaged rectangle with corners tucked into a carefully creased fold. Those small, yet lengthy notes, were often crafted during a seemingly mundane class and gave quite detailed descriptions of how incredibly bored one was at any particular moment. Others laid out the time-lined plans for the upcoming weekend or the blow-by-blow events from the previous one. The rollercoaster up’s and down’s of the teen crush of the week was played out in adolescent drama at its finest!
Yet the ebb and flow of ink still excites me. I believe penmanship to be so personal. Even today I can still identify the handwriting of those who left a mark on my life’s story. Before texting, email, Facebook, and Snapchat, we penned our words down on paper, in our own handwriting, forever and evermore. We hand-delivered them in person, left them on a desk or in a locker, or sometimes even begged our BFF to hand it off to those who we had best admired from a distance. Even in college, the little notes came often, though the U.S. Postal Service required them to be addressed and stamped. Can you imagine? Or can you remember when?
I shamelessly admit that I still have those little notes and long letters from decades ago…well at least the ones that survived one irrational, fear-driven, Saturday afternoon when my older sister discovered that I had found the key to her locked diary. I acted swiftly by grabbing my treasure trove of notes and threw them into the fireplace for fear that my sister would retaliate with fire of her own. How dare she uncover the 7th grade dreams, envies, and infatuations of those closest to me! They were tinder in the fireplace before I had time to regret it. It didn’t take long. Five minutes later, I cried. It still makes me sad.
Yet I tightly held on to all of the notes and letters that came after that fateful day. I just got better at hiding them, not because they were scandalous, but because they were precious. I realized even then that they were prized pieces of my story. I’ve grown into a better understanding that my mountains of paper create a collage of who I was then and often foreshadowed who I was to become.
I believe it was this deep love of written words that led me to pen my own letter to my dad as he began to count his days. A weakened heart was weakening him. Sadly we were all counting his days and we knew they were few.
It was Christmas 2014.
“Save your money.”
“Buy the kids something they want.”
“I don’t need a thing.”
All were common replies from Daddy when asked what he wanted for Christmas.
My dad’s favorite part of the holiday was never about what he was going to open. Instead he took much delight in watching the boxes, paper and bows fly across his living room as the grandchildren created a Christmas parade of their own.
This Christmas just felt different. Might this be our last Christmas together? Is this going to be the last gift I ever give him? Countless hours were consumed with the weight of the season. I was spent and had not spent a dime.
What could I ever buy my father that would represent all of the feelings stirring within me?
It was in the darkness of a sleepless night that I decided to give a gift that would return me to that early love of writing.
“OUR words are going to be Poppy’s gift this year!” I announced to my husband and kids one Saturday morning as they were groggily eating their Cheerios at the breakfast table. Pens, pencils, crayons, and markers were ready for the taking. I gathered paper and ensured that everyone had exactly what they needed to start crafting this special, one-of-a-kind gift. “Go take some time to write a letter to Poppy. Draw a picture if you want to. Just let him know what he means to you.” Simple instructions for such an enormous task.
I soon silenced myself in my bedroom and tried to listen to the sound of my own voice.
I remembered out loud.
I laughed out loud.
I cried out loud.
I prayed out loud.
The words came to me easier than I expected.
The kids drew pictures and wrote letters of their own. My husband threw countless crumpled pieces of paper in the trash until one, carefully penned by the man to whom my dad had handed my arm, was perfectly drafted. I collected everyone’s personal letters to Poppy, bound them together, and wrapped them with great expectation.
Christmas came. Poppy opened our gift, gave thanks with hugs, and told the kids how much he loved the pictures they drew. Yet he said he wanted to read our letters later, when it was quiet, and he wasn’t distracted by the mountain of gift wrap and new toys strewn at his feet. In that moment, he wanted to watch the kids excitedly greet Christmas with the elation that was a gift itself.
My mom said it took my dad a long time to read my letter. He never spoke to me about it again. He didn’t need to. He showed me how he felt with every hug goodbye, with every “I love you” before he hung up the phone, and with every tear he cried in those last months. I know he had held close every word that I wrapped so carefully. I understood that perhaps it was much harder for him to read my letter than it was for me to write it.
Penning my words on paper was a path towards finding a deep peace with what I knew was inevitable. Those who attended my dad’s memorial service heard excerpts of that letter. Changing verbs from present tense to past tense was the hardest. Really hard. Some words I elected to preserve solely on the paper upon which they were written. I firmly believe that there are words just meant to be shared between the you and the I. But I stood that September evening, in front of a crowded church of those who loved him best, and gave voice to many of the words I presented to my father just two Christmas’s earlier. My gift kept on giving.
I am going to begin to write more letters. I may start with those friends who penned many of the little folded notes that are now wrapped up in a treasure box in the top of my closet. There will be a happiness in remembering. There will also be a sadness that comes knowing that some of those who left their signatures on my heart can only hear my words in the whisper of the winds. I shall write them anyway.
I may even teach my kids how to fold, tuck and perfectly score a piece of notebook paper. I will teach them to write words on bubblegum wrappers if nothing else. I will tell them to write often, about the ordinary and the extraordinary. And maybe, just maybe, they will learn to pen a letter written in the language of their own heart to someone who holds on to it, carefully bundled in a bow at the top of her closet, when she begins to count her days.