A while back I met up with an old friend at a wedding in Michigan. We hadn’t seen each other in years, and decided to take some extra time and stroll through town to catch up on each other’s lives. We were browsing a bookstore together, when I started ranting about how email was turning out to be the death of letters.
“Don’t you miss handwritten letters?” I complained. “It was so great to get a letter from you when I was in Canada. Nothing good comes in the mail any more. It’s just full of bills and catalogues. I haven’t had a real letter come to the house in years.”
“Yeah,” she replied, flipping through “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and then putting it back on the shelf.
I kept on talking. “It’s not as if we’ve filled the void with e-mail, either. That seemed to lose all excitement about 10 years ago. After I’ve been through 200 work e-mails a day I can barely make myself open up my hotmail, and when I do, it’s the same thing as the mail – bills and junk.”
She nodded her head, and handed me a book of Billy Collins’ poetry. “You should buy this.”
When I did buy it, she agreed to make a pact with me to send at least two letters a year. Three months after our reunion, a letter arrived in the mail.
This is incredible, I thought, looking at the peach envelope in my hand. She really did it! I started to rip it open and then stopped myself. No, this should really be saved for a special moment. If I open this now, while I’m in the middle of making dinner, I won’t fully appreciate it. I need to save this letter for when I can savor it, when I can respond right away.
I carried her letter with me everywhere I went for two months, waiting for that “special” moment to arrive. It never did. Through business trips to L.A., New York, San Francisco, even a leadership retreat in the mountains, that letter remained sealed. And then I lost it. It didn’t even dawn on me until I started planning my Christmas letters and thought of my friend.
Oh, my God, I thought, I still haven’t read Christy’s letter! It had been months since the letter had arrived, and I realized how ridiculous my desire to save it for a special time had been. I searched everywhere, but the letter never turned up, and as Christmas drew near, I decided that I had to fake a response and keep my pact.
My letter was blithe and funny, never even mentioning her letter. I sounded narcissistic, but at least I kept my promise. During the holidays, I looked for an envelope with her name. Nothing. Not even the kind of Christmas form letter that drives me mad — the kind that goes through each month of the year, bragging about the family’s accomplishments.
Right about New Year’s, a terrible idea crossed my mind. What if there had been something awful in her letter? At the wedding, she was in the early stages of pregnancy. What if she had told me about a miscarriage in her letter? What if her husband had left her and she had poured out her soul to me? What if someone close to her, someone in her family, had died and she told me about it in that letter? Every scenario I thought of made me cringe at the letter I had just sent her. Here I had blathered on about every stupid thing going on in my life, when she had probably been dealing with a horrible crisis for six months or more. I hit my forehead. What an idiot! She would never respond to someone who showed so little empathy for her problems. Of course that’s why I hadn’t heard from her.
After several days of agony, I decided my only recourse was to call her and confess. When I heard the fourth ring, I almost hung up, and then her husband answered.
“Hi, Mark!” I said, thinking – well, at least her husband is alive. “This is Janelle. Is Christy home?”
“Yeah,” he said hesitantly, “I guess you heard the news.”
Oh, no, I thought, here it comes, something awful.
“What’s going on?” I asked, fear in my voice.
“Christy had the baby yesterday!” he announced.
“Oh!” I drew a long sigh in relief. “That’s great!
“You want to talk to her?”
“Sure! Love to.”
Christy and I chatted about the baby for about 10 minutes before I decided to tell her the truth about why I called. “Christy, I need to tell you something. I never read your letter. I’m so sorry. I lost it, and I didn’t have the heart to tell you. I bet you thought it was pretty weird that I didn’t say thanks or anything about it in my letter, didn’t you?”
A pause fell on the line, and then Christy said, “Well, the truth is, I haven’t read your letter yet. I was saving it for a special moment. In fact, I thought I’d read it some night when I got up to nurse the baby.”
I started laughing hysterically, and then had to explain why I found the phrase “special moment” so funny.
A few weeks later I found her original letter stuck between the pages of my Billy Collins book. When I read it, I had to smile. It was nothing special.
Janelle Holden, a former resident of Montezuma County, writes from Montana.