‘The post!’ shrieked Frances, rushing out of the room. An expectant pause, a temporary truce. ‘Two for my mother, one for Sophie Bentinck with a sweet blue seal of cupid — no, it’s a goat with wings — and one for Di, franked. I can’t make out the frank. Who’s it from, Di?’ — Post Captain, Patrick O’Brian
First Letters. My father occasionally sent me letters from Chicago, where he worked, addressed to Master Daron Hagen, Esquire, when I was very young because he knew that, flipping down the door of the mailbox and — sacred joy! — finding a letter there addressed to me, never failed to send me over the moon.
Returned Letters. A letter returned, unopened, is a poignant thing; one hardly knows what to make of correspondence returned in its entirety a decade or two after delivery. It has happened to me twice. During my first two years of college, I wrote a letter (sometimes two) every day to my high school sweetheart. (It helped that my student job was as a campus mailman for the University of Wisconsin, so I could frank the letters for free.) Years ago, she sent them all back to me. I’ve never opened the box, and probably never will; but they are safely stowed among my papers. Strangely, a few months before he died, my father sent me the two decades’ worth of the letters I had written to him and to my mother. I meant never to open that box either, but, just before placing it in the attic Upstate, I did; peered in, drew out at random four or five. Of course we scarcely see ourselves as others see us, or as we portray ourselves to our loved ones in prose, but the embarrassed, painful shock of recognition when I caught a whiff of the plucky, I’m-gonna-make-it tone, the rat-tat-tat enumeration of fleeting achievements, the callow attitudinizing, the ‘insider’ airs, was still as unexpected as it was acute. I quickly re-sealed the box and, shuddering, put it away.
Dead Letters. Every couple of days, the letter carrier puts in our box mail intended for the previous, now deceased, inhabitant of our apartment. Would it be more appropriate for me to write ‘Moved. Left no forwarding address’ on the envelopes (rather than the admittedly unsentimental ‘DEAD’ I customarily write in large, block letters) before placing them carefully atop the mailboxes for the carrier to take god-knows-where?
Colony Letters. How many times have I over the decades walked wistfully past the mail table in the linoleum room at Yaddo, pining for a letter? Who has not left a letter with a luminary’s return address on it sitting there for a few extra hours before retrieving it, hoping that the other guests will notice it? Or carried mail for others? (Once in Florida, Ned gave me a sheaf of letters to put into a mailbox just as we were about to drive somewhere, saying, 'In case we are killed on the road, these shall have been my last thoughts.' Summer after summer, at MacDowell and at Yaddo, charged by the deliciously acerbic Louise Talma with making sure that her letters went directly to the post office: ‘I don’t want people snooping into my affairs!’ she would grumble, Pall Mall dangling down from the side of her mouth.) That priceless epistolary commodity: a gossipy letter received while in residence from someone currently in residence at another colony.
Sung Letters. No wonder that opera composers, when looking for words of unimpeachable authenticity, first-person and emotionally-fraught, decidedly not meant for posterity, so often turn to letters: a clatch come to mind — Tatanya’s letter to Onegin; Baby Doe singing of her love for Horace; the letter aria in Tobias Picker’s Emmeline; Schoen’s letter to his fiancée in Lulu; the letter scene from Werther. I am not immune: my opera Amelia climaxes with the reading of a dead naval aviator’s ‘final letter’ to his daughter.
Lost Letters. Re-read so many times that it disintegrated in my hands, the most precious letter of my youth now exists only in memory. I’d loved her since the age of eight and had finally summoned the courage to tell her. I held her reply in my sweaty, ten-year-old fist. I turned the note over on its back, peeled it open, and read it, experienced for the first time how the entire universe can be transformed by three little words, written in the loopy handwriting of an eleven-year-old girl, I love you.
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