Old Friendsí Old Letters

Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2023 by Giles Ryan

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I write emails every day but I didnít grow up with them, and I canít say that I like this form of expression. True, email has the advantage of convenience and immediacy, which comes from the fact that the message goes across instantly, and may be read as soon as it is sent, perhaps within the moment. And a reply may come back just as quickly. But is all this too quick? Do convenience and immediacy preclude more important qualities?

My generation came of age in a world of letters, hand-written on paper and sent on their journey through the mail. Our letters, when we cared to take the effort, were crafted compositions approached with care. We chose the words with forethought, then built these words into sentences which combined into full paragraphs., and we proofread all of this and perhaps even wrote a second draft. The best of these letters were very good, and I like to think that I was concerned enough to write them well.

Sometimes our letters were offhand and routine, such as those we sent to our parents, reassuring them that we were studying, working hard and in good health, and sometimes our words were even true. Letters to parents were perhaps not our best efforts since they so often lacked the advantage of sincerity, but they were surprisingly well received; they meant less to the writer but were always welcome at the other end. Other letters written to high school or college friends were typically more frank, even coarse, and they might have given evidence of a boldness and a kind of wit our parents never knew we had. Also, letters to friends were more likely to include incidents and details not appropriate to our parentís sensibilities.

And then there were those letters straight from the heart, expressing the most ardent affection, with the hope that this affection would be returned. Such letters might show a mind overcome with emotion, touched by Queen Mab, everything poured out on the page. Of course, we might have second thoughts before we mailed them. Uncertainty might slow the letterís way into the envelope, hesitation might overshadow writing the address, and a last doubt might stop the stamp in mid-air. And then, even if we got as far as the mail box, we might stand there looking at the dreaded slot with a feeling very like standing at a fork in lifeís road. Should we send it off, or perhaps wait a few days to see if a letter coming our way might make unnecessary the one we just wrote? And then, with the letter swallowed by the slot, we might imagine our hand reaching in, trying to take it back. No! I didnít mean it! Give it back! At one time or another, some of us may have sent a letter like that.

Receiving letters could be more fraught than sending them. To be sure, letters from parents typically gave little concern or sense of urgency, except in our student days, when we may have opened one eagerly, looking for something a bit more concrete than a fond wish or sound advice ó perhaps a check? No? Oh well, thereís always next time. And letters from friends were always welcome and usually said that all was well, and might include an anecdote to make us laugh. But unwelcome letters, too, might come, and in the far off days of our youth we might have learned the hard way that so-called love letters could just as easily be grief letters, and itís a fortunate person who never had one.

Over a year ago, I was able to do a kindness to several old friends from my Peace Corps days. I had found in an ancient, battered briefcase a large manila envelope filled with letters my friends had written to me long ago, and I took these with me to our fifty year reunion in New Hampshire. Many letters were written to me during the two years we were all teaching in various middle schools scattered around Korea, and some were written to me by friends after they had returned home and I had stayed on working in Seoul. Somehow I had kept dozens of their letters and had not lost them in those distant, itinerant years.

I took along all these letters with the idea of giving them back to the friends who had written them, and they were all amazed and even delighted to have their past young selves put back into their hands ó and in their own handwriting! One friendís old letters reminded him of the terribly trying time he and his wife had in the early months of their new life in the small rural town of Nonsan. I delayed giving another friend his old letters until his wife was not nearby, and suggested he might want to read them first before he showed them to her, that perhaps she was unaware of some of his bachelor exploits, that even after a forty year marriage, a measure of discretion would not go amiss. Another friendís letters reminded him of how unhappy he had been after returning to Ohio and how much he missed the family he had lived with in Chunchon. Another friendís letter, sent on his long journey home, had been posted from a small port in Borneo where he had just landed after crossing the Sulu Sea from Mindanao on a tramp steamer, a voyage like something right out of Lord Jim, which, with his antic wit, he described in wonderful detail.

Especially poignant were the letters written by a friend who had died some years before and which I shared with everyone. His letters brimmed with his dry humor we all remembered well, and yet most of us never knew an essential part of his nature because he did not come out until many years after we knew him, and this self-revelation was a process of anguish which, by one report, may have contributed to his early death. I shared these letters with many of his old friends, and their memories of him were now evoked by his vivid descriptions of daily life at his middle school in Busan.

Did I, too, write letters showing any such wit, emotional resonance or insight? Did I ever move any of my friends to laughter or ó less likely ó some fresh understanding of our shared experience? I cannot say, nor can I vouch for the quality of the letters I wrote back then, but I want to think that I took care to choose my words with forethought, that I proofread them, and that my letters showed some craft. Certainly I wrote many letters to my friends, and the proof is in the many replies they sent, and I know I did not manage to keep all of theirs, that some went astray. But I was so glad that I kept all of the ones I still had and, years later, was able to give them back and share with them their own memories, crafted long ago by their own hands. 

I asked my friends if they had any of my letters which might have survived the years, perhaps even something they might have kept because the writing had some pleasing quality. 

But they had none.

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