Words on offer

Holiday Mail 2

As we draw ever closer to our Sunday wedding, I find myself reading and re-reading the many notes and cards we’ve received over the last few months. Some came during my bridal showers; others were dropped in mailboxes across the country to wish us well (like Melissa’s, which so touched my heart).

When I talk to others about my love of mail, I often get a wide-eyed look and knowing grin. Their little smile says something plain as day: Well, aren’t you just adorable?

I mean, I get it: mail is considered old-fashioned. Stodgy. Outdated. Letters are a thing of the past, really; one step up from antiques or — gasp! — printed books.

It’s not cool to send mail. Or collect stamps.

But I wish I could change that.

I love to write letters — real, serious, tangible letters. Cards. Mail. I write to my grandma, I write to service members, I write to folks who simply need some love and light in a complicated world.

I spend at least part of my day almost every day with a Sharpie and stack of note cards, sending some words out into the world . . . for no other reason than I feel compelled to do so. It’s my small way of sending joy.

I’m not rich. I don’t have piles of money for worthy causes, though I wish I did. But words? Encouragement? I can do that. I will offer that. Which is why I send letters every year through Holiday Mail for Heroes, a program sponsored by the Red Cross. It may sound a little early to be writing out Christmas cards, y’all, but life is going to get super busy very quickly. It’s not too soon to start thinking.

It’s a simple thing, really: a humble piece of mail. Just words scrawled in honest-to-God handwriting in blue or black or red ink. But it means something to someone, I promise you — just like it means something to me.

Don’t give up Facebook or Twitter or email . . . but remembering how much you value your real-life connections, too. Instead of dropping a “how’s it going?” text to a friend, grab a card. A silly one, a funny one, a random one — whatever speaks to you.

Then let it speak to them.

Holiday Mail 1

Of double weddings and lots o’ kids


One of the coolest parts of my job is the chance to interact with readers. Writing a newspaper column for three-plus years, I’ve gotten my share of interesting “fan mail.” For the most part, I’m lucky; when folks drop me a line, it’s not generally to tell me I suck. (Though that does happen.) The emails, letters and phone calls are heartwarming — especially the one above.

Since Spencer and I announced our engagement, a few questions spring from the lips of nearly everyone I see:

When are you getting married?
Have you chosen a dress?
Do you have a venue?
Are you going on a diet?

(Yep: all real, repeatedly asked questions. Including the weight issue — but that’s a separate post.)

Once we go over the basics, I invariably add that I’m not the only one recently betrothed; my sister’s fiance proposed on the same day. Most express surprise and even chuckle when I add that we’re both planning weddings for the fall of 2013, and then another question bursts forth:

Are you having a double wedding?

Never in my life have I even considered the idea of a double wedding. Though I love my sister dearly, everyone agrees we want our own day. I’m her maid of honor, and she will be my matron of honor; everything else aside, I wouldn’t want to take away from that. Kate and I actually are planning to have a double bridal shower, but that’s totally different from a double wedding. I mean: that’s insanity. Total insanity. Right?

Not for everyone, apparently. I wrote about the double-wedding issue in a recent column, and the letter and photo at top arrived from a reader who told the story of the wedding she shared with her younger sister in 1954. One of five girls, Betty’s father was all too glad to marry two of his lovely daughters off at once.

When I opened the letter, I literally gasped. How gorgeous and classic are those lovely brides? (And don’t worry: the photo is a copy!) I’ve always loved poring through old family albums, and the ladies’ vintage looks are stunning. I think the double cake toppers are adorable, too, and was so touched Betty took the time to send me her story. I showed it to everyone.

Married as 22- and 21-year-olds, Betty and her sister went on to have 17 (!!!) kids between them — and have enjoyed long, happy marriages. She kindly wished that for all of us.

Um, hopefully not the 17 kids part, though.

Putting my cursive where my mouth is

I get downright excited when a More Love Letters request reaches my inbox.

And then I feel guilty for being “excited” — because there’s a reason people are requesting letters for a loved one. Someone is hurting. Or grieving. Or sick. And they need some encouragement.

July’s request came in for Jim, a father fighting cancer. Since little information is shared about letter recipients to help protect anonymity, we don’t know much beyond that — except for what the More Love Letters team and Jim’s daughter have shared:

“This month we hope to deliver a large bundle of letters filled with support, strength, and love to Jim’s mailbox. Jim’s daughter Samantha requested an outpouring of love in her dad’s honor. “He is the kind of person who makes people feel good about themselves . . . He never had great wealth, but he was always rich in friends, loved ones, and experiences.

“Jim was diagnosed with cancer last year, and has experienced drastic changes to the life he once led. ‘He had to stop working, grew tired too easily, and lost the laughter that we came to rely on.’ Samantha wants her father to be reminded by this Love Letter Bundle of how much he is loved and what a great man and father he is and always will be.”

Having just lost a beloved uncle to cancer in January, this request hit close to home — and having also helped a parent through a serious medical condition and recovery, it hit doubly close to home.

I was thinking about Jim and his family as I ran to Target on my lunch break Tuesday. While I finished a feature at work. As I answered emails and imported content for my next project. As I paged through a stack of blank cards in a desk drawer, looking for one he might like.

Though I don’t have a cure for cancer or too many insights to share, I do have a heart full of empathy, a pen and a love for the written word. So I continue to put my cursive where my mouth is and write notes for those who might benefit from a few words of encouragement. As everything is kept anonymous, no contact information is exchanged — so I won’t know if/when Jim will read my letter. But I don’t need to. I think it’s enough to believe he will see it and, if just for a moment, know someone out there is rooting for him.

In keeping up with my own resolutions to do more for others in my 27th year, I’m planning to continue writing for the More Love Letters project in the months to come. If you’re interested in writing to Jim or anyone else in need, check out the website and its mission.

P.S. Happy birthday to my own dad, the great and talented Rick! Hope you’re not too disappointed with your birthday present.

Book review: ‘As Always, Jack’ by Emma Sweeney

Decades after her father’s plane goes down in the Atlantic, Emma Sweeney “meets” the pilot father she never knew through letters saved by her mother from the early days of their courtship. After her mother’s death, these letters — hidden since Emma’s childhood — give her a glimpse at the funny, charismatic and devoted man with whom Beebe had her sons and daughter: Emma herself, born after Jack’s death during the Cold War.

Jack met Beebe Mathewson in Coronado, Calif., just weeks before he was sent overseas with the Navy. Stationed in Hawaii and Tsingtao, China, Jack and Beebe’s nascent relationship begins with his acknowledgment that he’s utterly smitten with her — and their love only strengthens in the following months apart. In Emma Sweeney’s As Always, Jack, a collection of her father’s letters from 1946, we read only his missives to the beauty he left in California — but the affection between them is clear. It would have been wonderful to read Beebe’s letters, too, but they’re nowhere to be found; Emma notes that her heartbroken mother likely destroyed them after her husband’s death.

For me, the highlight of this short-but-sweet collection — published with a prologue and epilogue explaining family history and the letters’ significance — was learning how Emma felt about the father she never knew. Growing up, Emma’s questions about her family’s origins went unanswered. After her mom remarried when Emma was small, she was told to refer to her stepfather as “Dad” and her biological father as “Jack.” It made sense, I guess . . . considering her dad was gone. But it left Emma with a hole in her heart.

It’s hard to imagine Beebe’s heartache at having lost the love of her life — especially when no one could explain what became of him. Originally written off as “lost in the Bermuda Triangle,” the case was considered closed after the ’50s plane crash. It’s only in adulthood that Emma discovers what really became of Jack. When she finds her father’s letters, tucked away in a drawer, she knows intuitively that her mother left them for her alone to discover. It’s not hard to imagine they’d been hidden away for quite some time — a relic from a simpler time in Beebe’s life, before everything in her world went dark.

Though Jack’s letters to Beebe make up most of the book (and I enjoyed them), I found myself more interested in Emma’s childhood and the mystery of Jack’s plane crash. Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure most of us have a stack of letters just like Jack’s somewhere in a family attic. I grew up hearing stories of my great grandfather, a World War II veteran, and all the letters he wrote from China when my grandmother was young. I’ve held quite a few in my hands, actually, and talked about my great grandfather’s adventures abroad. Those letters? They’re treasures. My great grandfather’s descriptions of life in the service, the Kodak camera he purchased on the black market in China, the obvious love and devotion he had for his wife and daughter at home . . . they bring tears to my eyes. And Jack’s seem much the same.

Though the missives are likely reminiscent of many written in the 1940s, maybe that doesn’t matter. As Always, Jack is a pleasant read, one I devoured quickly; I chuckled a few times, shed a tear once or twice. I can’t imagine being Emma in that time following her mother’s passing, saying goodbye to one parent while just “meeting” another for the first time. Jack’s letters are a treasure for the Sweeney family — absolutely — and if you’re a World War II buff (though these were technically written after the war) who enjoys epistolary love stories, Sweeney’s collection is a heartwarming way to spend an afternoon.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316758582 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazon
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

GIVEAWAY update on 7/12: Congrats to Erin, lucky No. 5 in my entrants list. I’ve emailed you!

A love letter to yourself

When I was an awkward eighth grader preparing to leave middle school, our English teacher asked us to write letters to ourselves describing how we thought the coming year would go. “Think about the changes you’ll experience,” he said. “Write some advice you think your future self will need to hear.”

I was 13. Though ninth grade would definitely prove difficult, I wasn’t prepared for how the change of schools and loss of friends would manifest itself in the years to follow. I’m glad I didn’t know, of course; knowing something difficult is hovering just above you, ready to tear up your world, doesn’t make the transition easier.

The letters we wrote in eighth grade were mailed to us at the end of the following school year. I don’t remember what I said exactly. Ever the deep and melancholy teen, I’m sure it was something about how time marches forward and we must go with it. My mom had a favorite quote, even back then: “Give new situations a chance to turn out well.” I was nervous about high school, that’s for sure, but prepared to embrace the bonfire.

I just found a modern extension of that project — and it comes at the right time. I’m not one to really make New Year’s resolutions. Vowing to do something tends to have just the opposite result; the more I pledge to take some action, like writing more or going to the gym, the less I actually want to do it. And then the guilt follows, reducing me to an anxious mess.

So I’ve stopped making “pledges” — to myself or otherwise — and choose instead to be mindful of the things about myself I don’t like. Lack of patience, for one. Tendency to get overly emotional or dramatic. My desire to procrastinate at work and get in over my head on projects. All things I would like to change.

But there’s plenty I like about me, too, and that’s what I try to focus on. I put them all in a love letter . . . to myself. I found the World Needs More Love Letters project before Christmas and immediately jotted words of comfort to folks who could use them at the holidays. And now the site is asking for love letters as part of their time capsule project.

“Throughout the month of January, MoreLoveLetters.com is collecting love letters through the PO BOX for the first ever New Year’s Love Letter Capsule,” they write. “We are giving you the entire month to find that time to sit down with your best stationery (because you deserve it!) and script a love letter for yourself. What do you want to accomplish in 2012? What are your goals? Who do you want to treat better? Write a love letter that will last longer than the typical New Year’s resolution.”

I want to be mindful of change, I thought. Of how I know life will morph and shape into something new this year, and everything might not feel good. There will be challenges. Plans might change. My ability to be happy will depend on whether I can roll with these things and embrace them, even when they’re hard.

Write a love letter to yourself, too. Visit the site for their address. Like my eighth grade teacher, the More Love Letters team will mail your note back to you next year. You can be serious or silly, pensive or funny — it’s all up to you. Just include your address and a stamp so you can recognize your own handwriting next January.

Embrace the bonfire, I wrote again. Embrace it. Step forward and embrace it.

Never thought anything could be so beautiful

At an antiques show earlier in August, I found myself drawn to the stacks and stacks of postcards littering booths around my old high school’s cafeteria. Though I’ve gone in the past and enjoyed flipping through many of the images, I was a woman on a mission this time.

My postcard collecting has started to grow out of control.

The last time I attended the antiques show with my mom and sister, I had so much fun looking through the boxes of mementos from time gone by. I remembered seeing notes from Niagara Falls, my most favorite of places, and regretted not buying a few. The ones that were stamped and actually written out, complete with addressees, are the best; it’s fun to see the postage, for one, but the notes are what really get me.

After spotting the same antiques dealer from last year, I made a beeline for his boxes of postcards and began flipping through. Once I found those from New York, I was in fat city — and finding a bunch from Niagara Falls wasn’t difficult. Though I came home with three, only one was filled out. That message is what made me bring it home.

What I love about old letters is that the sentiments aren’t exactly antiquated. Every time I get a peek at Niagara and stand near the falls, I echo “Liz-Lyle”‘s thoughts: “Never thought anything could be so beautiful.” It’s simple and pure and honest. And I love that in terms of a letter, well — that’s all there is.

I like to imagine that Liz and Lyle are a young couple on their honeymoon, perhaps venturing away from the family nest for the first time as newlyweds. They’re writing home to Liz’s family in D.C. and sent a series of postcards from Niagara, where they stayed on the Canadian side. It’s 1953 and the world is a new, shiny place; World War II is over and Vietnam and the riotous ’60s haven’t altered America just yet. Maybe it’s a time of relative tranquility. Or maybe it’s still turbulent, but Liz and Lyle have chosen to marry in defiance of the world’s uncertainty. And I applaud them.

Ahem. Well, you can see how easy it is for me to get carried away with things, but that’s just because I love making up stories. And every postcard definitely tells a story.

I imagine the letters I send to people around the world through Postcrossing someday winding up in attics, basements or in the hands of grandchildren or great-grandchildren. No one will know who I am or how to reach me, but they’ll hold in their hands something I once touched. I send photos of places that mean something to me, and postcards I’ve picked up in my travels. I take care when writing each letter, sharing a little bit of myself in that note. Sometimes it’s like therapy.

And maybe sometime, somewhere, someone will buy my postcards at an antiques sale.

State of the postcard

Since joining Postcrossing, an international postcard-swapping project, my mailbox has been overflowing with love. Postcards in all shapes and sizes have found me at my desk in Maryland, where my coworker Kelly brings in the daily mail.

“Bam!” she shouts each morning, holding my coveted cards out to me. We read them together and admire the photos, often chatting about the differences in the cultures between the sender and myself, one American writer.

Since last August, when I sent my first postcard to Finland, I’ve sent 111 cards to Postcrossing members in 37 countries — and received more than 100 in return. They come from Turkey, South Korea, Ireland, Ukraine . . . and dozens of other places.

And each carries just a little piece of the sender. While I love the photos, what I love best is actually reading the words scrawled on each. The handwriting completely fascinates me: curly; somber; precise; delicate. I love learning about the lives of people in far-flung places — places I’ve never seen and may never see. Members usually have a short “about me” section on their profile, and I can’t count the number of times I read about someone else’s interests and think, “Hey! Me too!”

People are readers. And writers. They’re photographers and music lovers and daughters. They’re parents and boyfriends; travelers and dreamers. They have ambitions. And so many of them tell you about their dreams — things that might be easier to share with me, a stranger, than someone they love (see final message below).

There’s a sort of magic through the shared experience — through knowing that the card in my hand, bent at the corners, once sat on the table or desk or lap of someone in a foreign nation. Someone wrote it out, forming letters meant only for me. And these cards traversed the globe to land right in my hands in America.

Though the hobby isn’t exactly “cheap,” it’s brought me so much joy. The cost of a postcard and international stamp (98 cents) doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the idea of never seeing brightly-colored notes in my mailbox again.

Some recent postcard messages:

“Hi! I’m 15 years old student from Finland. I was surprised, because my interests are exactly the same as yours: I love cooking, photographing and reading! But now I haven’t taken many photos, because it’s sooo cold outside! (about -29 degrees C). I like to take pictures of animals, nature, flowers, butterflies, etc. Take care!” — Finland

“Czeso! Hello! My name’s [name], I’m 21 and I live in Poland. I’m a student of economic. I have an exam tomorrow so I should learn but you know . . . I’m too tired of all these exams. Fortunately, exams period finish in two weeks. 🙂 I’d love to visit USA (esp. NYC) — It’s my biggest dream! And my favorite book’s Dear John by N. Sparks! Take care.” — Poland

“Hello Megan! I’m also a 25-years-old person! But I work as a geography teacher! I love traveling — have been to the U.S.A. one time — Hawaii! This postcard that I want to share with you is my working school! It’s issued by my school because of student’s graduation ceremony. I hope you will like the design. Have a nice day!” — Taiwan

“Dear Megan, Hello! Isn’t this road just amazing? Every time I look at this card I feel the urge to go there — to get in my car and drive — to escape . . . today more than most days. I’m a graduate student in year three of an endless (or so it seems) PhD program at [school]. I absolutely love it. The problem, you may ask? Well, I’m driving myself crazy with a long-distance relationship to a man I love more than my studies. So I want out. I can’t take it anymore. I need to leave [city] and get myself “home” — back where I belong. Why can’t life just be . . . easy?” — USA