A few weeks ago, I decided it was time to tackle the under-the-basement-stairs cabinet, which had been filled for the last decade with all the letters of my life. By “all,” I mean, all the letters I had received from childhood up until my early 40s. (Letters from the last 15 years, since the rise of email, are scant and have a cushy home in my office.)
Most of the letters were still in their torn envelopes, tossed together in a sturdy, white apparel gift box from The Union Co. (a long-defunct fancy department store). Others were stashed in shoe boxes, along with buttons, ticket stubs, a sign from my seventh-grade “Tequila Sunrise”-themed canteen. I found my social security card in a moldy wallet.
I had been putting off this excavation for years. I know that the process, the long backward gaze at my life, has depressed me before. This wasn’t the first time I rediscovered the diary given to me in 1971 by one of my dad’s girlfriends, the diary with a mod design. Each rediscovery makes me ache. In between fifth-grade-me’s single-entry “yawn”s and complaints about annoying siblings are entries from bitter eighth-grade-me—all because my father had found and read my original eighth-grade diary, full of salacious detail, which I tore up in anger. The leap from 11 years old to 15 is frightening. The blocky handwriting next to the rebellious cursive, with its angular “y”s, is evidence of my downward spiral from innocence.
And then the letters. Dozens of letters, from friends I can barely remember during a time that I’ve spent half my life trying to forget. Most were painfully myopic. Thirteen-year-olds don’t write about anything but boyfriends, cheerleading tryouts, and dropped friends. Ten-year-olds write about pets and summer vacations. Seventeen-year-olds write about the unknown future, which is a little more interesting. Letters from a friend who moved briefly to Tehran at the time of the Shah’s overthrow were full of action and terror and love.
I found several letters that I had written to my mother. They were in a briefcase where she had kept her insurance documents and stationary. In my boxes of received letters, I couldn’t find a single one from her. I know she wrote to me once in a while. I had memorized her handwriting — petite, strange as a foreign accent, an insistent cursive. My letters to her (I could only bring myself to read a few) apologized for not keeping in touch, not writing or calling more often. I literally begged her forgiveness.
I threw away most of the old letters from friends. Their hold on me had long since loosened. My shoulders relaxed as I filled the trash can.
But I could not empty my mother’s briefcase. The clippings of Norman Vincent Peale columns, the letters from my siblings (similarly begging forgiveness), the UNICEF stationary cards remain preserved. It’s been 26 years since she died and I carry around this briefcase as if it contains something more than guilt: a secret document in which she explains everything.