When I was in seventh grade, my friend Lydia moved away. For years afterward, my mother exchanged letters with her family in North Carolina. The thump of envelopes hitting the floor would send me running to the front door, eagerly sifting through the pile to find Lydia's signature lower-case block lettering.
Lydia wrote long descriptions of the people she hung out with and the things she was doing. And she would enclose little surveys for me. What was my favorite album? Which did I like better, "The Brady Bunch" or "The Partridge Family"?
I still look at these letters every so often. Mom always kept the letters she got, so I saved Lydia's. I can't remember who wrote last, but the letters stopped when we were in college. After that, I lost track of Lydia. But I still like glimpsing the 1970s through her letters.
Mom started writing me during my freshman year at college. I kept her letters in my dorm room. At the end of the term, I brought them home to add to my collection.
Mom's letters give rich details of her life and a mirror into my own. Some describe her transition from art teacher to lobbyist in the 1980s. Others tell the family stories she unearthed as she began researching family history in the early 1990s. Most are just about everyday stuff that was going on at home in Chevy Chase, Md. while I was away at college, starting a career in New York City, and, in the 1990s, raising a family in California.
The letters from Lydia and Mom are mingled with others in a cardboard box in my attic. Though I try to de-clutter I can't bring myself to get rid of this box. Too much history would be lost.
Mom's letters stopped in 1997. That's the year we started e-mailing each other. No more letters in the box. I saved e-mails instead. Not just Mom's, either.
But even computers don't last forever and it was time to upgrade mine.
I sat staring at my old computer screen on a recent Friday night.
"What do I do with the 2,236 e-mails saved on my hard drive?" I wondered. I immediately purged all forwarded jokes and scam opportunities. I scrolled down to hockey team announcements, Tiger Cub mailings, and science fair committee news.
Now I was into the meat - 1,137 left. At least half of these were between Mom and me. They are the continuation of the long-distance mother-daughter dialogue we have had for over twenty years. Now I have both sides of the conversation.
Mom writes e-mails the way she used to write letters. They keep me connected to her and Dad and my siblings though my life is 3,000 miles away.
I am the mother of three boys, ages 3, 6, and 8. My e-mails are as close to baby-book entries our kids may ever get. Rereading them one Friday night, they jogged my memory.
One describes Scotty's first step. Another, the day he cried until I gave him paintbrush and paper so he could watercolor, too.
"My hair is orange, not red," six-year-old Danny is quoted. At our local pool, he tried backstroke, but back-sinks, instead. On the first day in a new school, Danny burst through the door of Mrs. McCann's kindergarten class smiling because Marcus is his new friend.
Jamie shone in the spelling bee at the local mall. We arrived home too late for a call to the East Coast, so I dashed off an e-mail instead. We were still asleep when Mom e-mailed her congratulations to Jamie.
OPEN, SAVE, and DELETE? But SAVE to what? My 1990 rsum is forever imprisoned on a 5-1/4 diskette. 3-1/2 inch disks are yesterdays technology.
Who can say what the life of a ZIP drive will be?
My letter collection is forever. It doesn't matter when they were written, what type of envelope they came in, or how much they cost to mail.
It makes no difference whether they are written in Lydia's lower-case letters or Mom's tight cursive. I can read every letter in the box.
OPEN, PRINT, then DELETE. These e-mails belong in the box, too.
The printer hummed all weekend.
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