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Thursday
Jul262012

An Epistolary Confession

This article originally appeared on The Curator.

I live for good snail mail days. I either rush out to the mailbox when I hear the mail truck scoot away or bat my eyelashes and lazily ask of my husband (headed out to a drum gig or errand), “Will you puh-lease check the mail? If there’s anything fun, will you bring it inside?” By “fun” I mean the latest issues of Books & Culture, Comment, Image, Garden & Gun, Poetry, The Paris Review, the Toast catalog, and the like. Oh, and paychecks.

Or even better, an envelope or package bearing return addresses from family and friends. My mom might send interesting magazine clippings with sweet notes tucked inside. Or a friend will loan me a book with a handwritten poem slipped between the pages that I don’t discover until I’m well immersed in the story.

A recent postal excitement was the thoughtful gift of a ceramic bird-shaped whistle from a friend, which was a thank-you gift for a gift I sent her in the hopes of imparting some kind of peace and joy in a very dark time of her life. I was astounded by her thoughtfulness in the midst of personal chaos. Not only did she ship the pretty whistle, but also a thank you note in an envelope bearing an Adolph Gottlieb painting-stamp, two 10-cent “J” stamps just for kicks, and rubber-stamped blue flowers on the front. On the back, a Bunting Bird sticker sealed the message inside — all of it such inspiring artistry. A Brown Wren perched on the front of the card; again, my friend remembered what would cheer me when she needs all the cheer in the world right now. Inside, her penmanship spoke:

Dear Jenni,

Just a little birdie
for your sill. Put a little
bit of water in and then
blow for birdsong. And
when you do remember there
is a friend who appreciates you.

Always.

I hung my head, wept, and prayed for my friend, seared by her suffering, strength, and humility.

Another recent snail-mail discovery was from a different friend. It was a white envelope with a comforting texture, and this penmanship I knew all too well. This friend’s handwriting should be an electronic font, honest to God. The seal on the back of her envelope was that perfect script, “Hello! (See, look — I not only call, I send mail too!)” She referred to a personal joke of ours where I pretend to be irritated that she never calls, lives far away, boohoo. . . . Whatever. She’s a busy mom for God’s sake.

The envelope did make me smile, but the note inside made me laugh out loud:

Jenni—

So, here’s what happened . . .
this weekend I was looking
through my box of memorabilia
from Italy & I found this post-
card that I never sent to you.
I am not sure why . . .
But anyway — here it is — 4 years
late.
[smiley face] See, and now the cat
is even more appropriate since you just found Lily . . .
Enjoy the postcard!
(Now I miss Europe . . .
[sad face] )

Love.

Her note was written on an old index page of a ledger and she too adhered a bird sticker to the faded surface. She ripped the page right out of the book; I loved the spontaneous, rustic aesthetic. The postcard did in fact bear her greeting from four years ago as well as a dignified black cat on the glossy cover along with French writing — she went to Paris, too. Belated, yet thoughtful. I don’t know many people who’d realize they’d forgotten to send a postcard four years ago, then actually send it upon the moment of realization. My friends are a rare, whimsical, priceless bunch.

Though I did send a little gift to my kind, suffering friend, my efforts at handwritten letters and notes have dwindled and ceased.

I once joined the Letter Writers Alliance with sincere devotion to their revolution. I was assigned a lovely pen pal, we exchanged several letters and notes, but then, inexplicably, sloth settled into my fingers. We are now Facebook friends, not mailbox friends.

And ashamedly, I’ve even slacked off writing to the Compassion child my husband and I sponsor: Denise, who lives in Uganda. She is in our constant prayers, yet I can’t sit down and write a letter? What’s worse is that she writes to us faithfully, coloring the illustrations on the side of the Compassion stationery: an ingoma (drum), akabindi (pot), ingabo (shield), imbehe (dish), and an icyansi (milk container). She often begins her letters:

Dear John and Jenni Simmons,

To my sponsors.
I am greeting you in the name of Jesus . . .

Such a greeting reminds me of the Epistle books in the Bible, each page delicate as a butterfly wing.

* * *

My aunt died suddenly, recently. As my family and I sorted through her belongings in her apartment, we kept items that were special to each of us. I gratefully placed into cardboard boxes classic vinyl (the Beatles, Willie Nelson, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan), children’s books she read to me and my brother, plastic food-shaped magnets I used to arrange on her refrigerator, a green glass jar full of stones with words painted on one side and a short definition on the other, an old wooden piano-music box. My family bestowed to me two beautiful rocking chairs. And they also instructed me to cart back home my aunt’s photo albums and a plastic bag full of letters and cards she received, organized, and bundled neatly by large rubber bands.

I’m slowly finding the right places in my house for each memory of my aunt. The boxes are only partially unpacked. The photo albums wait alongside in a plastic blue crate.

I still feel the scars of guilt and remorse. I’d meant to call her for one of our rich, deep conversations the week before she died. I ache with that standard element of grief: if I’d had one more phone call and oh gosh, sent one more letter or card.

Missing her voice — vocal and written — I sat on my couch and held the stack of envelopes sliced open neatly at the top by a letter opener. She had grouped the correspondence by person: my late grandfather, his wife, my uncle, my mom, cousins, friends, and me.

Me. Before my eyes were cards that I’d carefully selected for her birthdays, to thank her for gifts, or just to say, “Hi.” One coffee-and-cream-colored envelope caught my eye. I pulled out the card with an angel and a quote on the front:

One is not born a woman — one becomes one.
—Simone de Beauvoir

On the inside I wrote:

Happy birthday Pat!
This card reminded me of
you, since you were a great
part of me becoming a
woman.
[smiley face]

I love you!
Jenni
(talk to you soon)

As each year of our lives passed, she truly did help to shape me into who I am today. She and my mom (in-laws) used to joke they “co-mothered” me. And my aunt was an excellent card-sender. Sometimes they were her only gifts on my birthdays, but I cherished finding them in the mailbox each November. She picked just the right cards and wrote just the right loving words in blue ink from aunt to niece.

There is something about grief and death that also resurrects life — through remembering and sharing stories of loved ones. Caring for their possessions entrusted to us and seeing that person when we pass by or pick up those objects in our homes. And for me, there is a period of introspection.

How could I have been a better niece? I hope she really knew how much I loved her. I hope I am like her in many ways. I want to be a better woman, who God created me to be. I want to live life well.

My grandfather wrote inside one of the cards to his daughter:

I’m thinking of the many
times you have helped
me and mine along the
way. I love you very,
very much.

Dad
(Joy sends love)

Continuing to cultivate a life less of myself and lived more for others includes the resumption of hand-writing letters, notes, and cards. I confess my epistolary indolence and now, I move forward. I’ll sit at my desk, pick up my my favorite Uni-Ball pen and one of my many neglected boxes of stationery or cards, put together belated boxes of gifts, return loaned books. You’ll see. Check your mailbox. Most likely, you’ll spy a brown sock monkey stamped somewhere on your envelope or box and find a few tea bags inside.

All photos by Kierstin Casella.


Jenni Simmons is the editor of the Art House America Blog, a staff writer for The Curator, and a drummer's wife. She is confessing epistolary sloth once again this year. Please pray for her.

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