Thank you—that is for being born and for the letters too.
—Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz
When my oldest son was still an only child, my husband and I bought him his first chair and desk. The three of us had set out for the Chelsea flea market early one October morning. The market was known for its collection of used furniture, slightly bent lamps, and bizarre bric-a-brac. We had no clear goal in mind other than wandering through the outdoor aisles before the popular spot became too crowded for a large-wheeled stroller.
It was a day of big blue skies and fresh air after a night of cleansing rain. We had nothing more pressing to do than keep our thirteen-month-old son happy. Full of young-parent energy and caffeine, we walked the sixty blocks downtown. Jack and I took turns pushing the stroller while Peter entertained us with a constant barrage of songs and chatter.
I don’t remember who first spotted the small desk and chair, perfectly matched in slivered oak and inlaid scarring, bearing witness to at least one generation of scribblers before us. But there was no question in any of our minds: Peter thumped the desk with his fist and the set was ours.
We shoved the stroller, desk, and chair into the back of a large yellow cab and went home to the Upper West Side. I cleared out a corner of the living room for Peter’s desk, just below a window and to the side of our nonworking but fine-looking fireplace. From our small kitchen alcove I would be able to keep an eye on the desk, and when I sat to read on the couch facing the fireplace, Peter would be there beside me, working away while I turned pages.
I set up jars of markers and crayons along Peter’s desk, just where it met the brick wall. I laid out stacks of notebook paper, small index cards, and used envelopes, leaving the middle space of the desk open and clear. Above the jars I attached Peter’s favorite postcard to the rough bricks, a portrait of Shakespeare: the writer looks grim, his lips set in a downward line between goatee and mustache. Five ounces of blue sticky gum held the card straight. Everything was set and ready.
Peter toddled on sturdy legs over to his desk, pulled out his chair, and began to scribble. He quickly covered an index card with blue marker squiggles, then carefully worked the card into an envelope. His face serious, he turned and handed me the envelope. I had received my first letter from Peter.
Flash-forward seventeen years, and it is another beautiful fall morning. Peter’s old desk now sits in a sunroom off the main drag of the suburban home we moved to when our fourth child was born. Peter is away at college. We dropped him off there in August, moving him into his dorm on his eighteenth birthday. After getting him settled, we went out for lunch, to celebrate the birthday and the start of college.
“After we eat, you guys should get going,” Peter said to me as we sat down in the French restaurant a block away from Harvard Yard.
“No problem.” I nodded. I understood. He wasn’t saying “hit the road” to me, not really. He was just saying that it was time for him to go his own way, and that family was not invited.
Within hours of leaving him on the steps of Memorial Hall, I got a text on my phone: “Love you.”
I showed it to Jack.
“Nice,” he said, and I agreed. Very nice.
But I wanted more. I wanted more than the texts and tweets and the occasional phone calls I got over the next few weeks. I wanted a letter.
“Drop me a line sometime,” goes the old farewell. A casual request, but for me a strong desire. With one child off at college, and three more to go, joining their brother in places near or far but not home with me, I wondered: Why does a letter mean so much?
Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing
Witty, moving, enlightening, and inspiring, Signed, Sealed, Delivered begins with Nina Sankovitch’s discovery of a trove of hundred year- old letters. The letters are in an old steamer trunk she finds in her backyard and include missives written by a Princeton freshman to his mother in the early 1900s. Nina’s own son is heading off to Harvard, and she hopes that he will write to her, as the Princeton student wrote to his mother and as Nina wrote to hers. But times have changed. Before Nina can persuade her child of the value of letters, she must first understand for herself exactly what it is about letters that make them so significant—and just why she wants to receive letters from her son. Sankovitch sets off on a quest through the history of letter writing—from the ancient Egyptians to the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, from the letters received by President Lincoln after his son’s death to the correspondence of Edith Wharton and Henry James.
Sankovitch uncovers and defines the specific qualities that make letters so special, examining not only historical letters but also the letters in epistolary novels, her husband’s love letters, and dozens more sources, including her son’s brief reports from college on the weather and his allowance.
In this beautifully written book, Nina Sankovitch reminds us that letters offer proof and legacy of what is most important in life: love and connection. In the end, she finds, the letters we write are even more important than the ones we wait for.