Last week, after giving a talk at Dartmouth, my undergraduate college, I made a familiar pilgrimage: I walked past my dorm room, visited my favorite parts of the library and went to put my hand on my old mailbox. Maybe you no longer need to kneel at the mailbox of your youth, but I do. The emotional gravity of that location still pulls.
I found it easily (Hinman Post Office Box 99, still right there between Hinman 98 and Hinman 100). I either forgot the combination to the lock or they changed it, probably because every alum who visits tries to see if it’ll work.
Dartmouth’s small brass-fronted mailboxes line the walls of a series of narrow corridors in the arts center on campus. All postal deliveries go to that one building. My residence was about half a mile away but even on freezing, sleeting days, I’d be desperate enough to check in the early morning and again in the late afternoon to see whether something waited there for me.
Letters - hand-written, stamped and posted days or even weeks before they arrived - had the power to make me either deliriously happy or entirely miserable.
I longed for mail the way mystics long for voices from the mountaintops. Because my mailbox was on the lowest level, nearest to the floor, I literally had to get onto my knees to see whether my wishes would come true that day. The only things missing were clerical robes, a bell and a candle to make it a fully religious rite.
Fortune was sometimes on my side. My father hated to write, but he’d send notes and the occasional cassette he’d taped off my favorite radio stations in New York: weird conversations from alternative radio WBAI or Vin Scelsa’s show from rock WNEW-FM. Occasionally one of my mother’s sisters would send a check for $5 in her memory. My older brother sent postcards. Pals from high school sent letters.
Although I’m embarrassed to admit it, in those days all I was really waiting for were letters from whatever boyfriend happened to be the center of my existence.
How the value of things change. As a discarder of all defunct romance-related items, I tossed the billets-doux from the boys, but kept the postcards from my brother, the notes from my dad Dad and the cards from my aunts. Letters from friends - not romantic interests - fill treasured cabinets in my office.
Handwritten artifacts, apparently, continue to capture the imagination. We remember the letters that changed our lives.
We remember when we got our college acceptances - and rejections. We remember the love letters - and rejections. We recall phrases from the acceptances by employers, agents and editors - with entire paragraphs from their rejections seared into our brains.
Sometimes the rejections were nicer than the acceptances. Nevertheless, “This lyrical work will surely find a home that can give it the support it deserves, but it isn’t right for us,” remains the equivalent of “You’re a wonderful human being and someday someone will love you for all the right reasons, but it isn’t me.”
In the days before everything was electronic, much arrived that you didn’t see coming.
We held our breath as we read marriage proposals. We closed our eyes after reading divorce papers. We screamed when we got unexpected checks and wailed when we got unexpected bills. Despite ourselves, we laughed at ridiculously stupid cards and got all teary at the ridiculously sentimental ones.
If you were stationed overseas, or somebody you loved was fighting far from home, you waited for mail because these pieces of paper were your lifelines. They were the ellipses, the small dots of ink connecting you to each other that kept the conversation from lapsing into silence.
We’d wait to get official reports from our doctors, and lab tests would come in the mail, too. We were in a state of suspended animation between the time we had the appointment and the time of the written diagnosis.
Neither good news - nor bad - can ever travel fast enough.
Seeing an envelope, addressed in a familiar hand, can still make our hearts beat faster. That’s worth a first-class stamp. That’s worth a trip to the mailbox.
Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books.