Lately my mailbox bulges with cards and letters. Not for me - for my mother who is visiting. I'm getting nothing because my most loyal letter-writer is my mother.
Somehow I understood, even decades ago while in college, that letters from our mothers were more than information carriers. They were objects that bore our mothers' love. They were evidence that our mothers were thinking about us. Even if my mom's letters didn't say anything earth-shatteringly brilliant, they always closed with: "Lots of love, Mom." My friends and I would rationalize not writing back to our moms by saying that we didn't have time to write anything meaningful. I doubt, however, that our mothers would have complained about getting letters that told of our minor daily annoyances if we had closed them with those reassuring words: "Love, Your Daughter."
I remember the comfort I felt from reading the letters Mom wrote to support my first experience at Girl Scout camp. Then college came, along with the ritual of checking my mail slot as I hurried home from class. When I moved from Wisconsin to Arizona, Mom sent me not only letters, but a box of familiar fall leaves. Then I moved to Boston, and her letters followed me faithfully, every mile of the way.
Once a group of friends and I compared letters from our mothers. My mom's letters chronicled her driving experiences during a week of snowstorms. They were vivid, well-written, suspenseful - and they were judged the most exciting. My friends envied the fact that my mom related "really interesting stuff." I assured them that I had received plenty of letters that documented shopping trips and weekly menus, as well as reflections on the books she found interesting.
E-mail and instant text-messaging rarely convey the sense of careful sharing that is evident in a well-written letter. Today one can find beautiful handmade paper, wild colors of ink, and funky rubber stamps to add visual interest to "snail mail." These are helpful gimmicks, but a desire to communicate and a sense of joy in storytelling are essential to a good letter.
My mother's letters have been miracles of time grabbed out of heaven knows where. While she was teaching, active in church work, and caring for a household, she often wrote her letters during her regular hair appointments. I received letters that she wrote on her hairdresser's stationery, where she penned her name and the word "client" across from the letterhead.
Never wasteful, Mom would use any paper available. Because Mom was conscious about recycling, my brother-in-law made stationery and envelopes for her out of brown paper bags. There was no mistaking them when they arrived in the mail.
We teased her so much about her list of topics that, for a while, we received letters with headings like: Weather Report, Menu Report, Travel Report, School Report, Backyard Activity. This last topic would cover how many deer had been sighted, stories about the rascally chipmunks my father tried to discourage, and the latest contraptions devised to keep the squirrels away from the bird feeders.
A constant cycle of collecting, sorting, and "getting rid of" frames Mom's life. To her, "getting rid of" often means mailing the item with a note that says: "I don't need this anymore, but I thought you'd enjoy seeing it. Throw it out when you're finished."
I have also received placemats scrawled with, "Daddy and I ate at this restaurant - delicious cinnamon rolls."
My mom packs so much information into each letter that mere initials designate names, places, and events.
"Do you have any idea what she's talking about in this letter?" a college roommate once asked my niece. "Oh sure, I know everything she's talking about," replied the adept decoder.
Mom is never at a loss for someone to write to - or a reason to write. There are tons of family members, dear friends, young people from church away at college for the first time, people she has met while traveling, and the state radio station that had the nerve to redefine their audience so she cannot hear the news and discussion programming anymore. In phone conversations, after relating someone's happy or sad circumstances, her next words invariably are, "I want to get a letter off to them right away."
My mom is indisputably Queen of the Posted Page, which means that whenever she leaves home, she has at least one envelope that must be mailed as soon as a mail box can be found.
I hold the distinction of providing her with her greatest mailing-related experience. One day, we drove to the post office in my town and were greeted by blue and white balloons fluttering over a banner that proclaimed: "Postal Customer Appreciation Day." A gigantic blue "mail box" on the sidewalk housed a postal worker.
Smiling cheerfully, the postal worker sold stamps to my mother and gave us stamp novelty pins and a few peppermint candies. This was a real thrill! The unexpected postal festivities made Mom's day - and gave her a wonderful story to include in her next cycle of letters.