We were going through a bunch of boxes, mostly throwing stuff away, and I came upon a trove of love letters. It wasn’t exactly a surprise — I had been lugging it around, house to house, town to town, marriage to marriage, for over 50 years — but this was the first time I actually sat down and read them all again. They were written to me over the course of four years by three different girls who were, serially, my girlfriends.
I shall withhold their names. They are all 70+ now; one or more could be dead. I do not wish to cause them embarrassment. I’ll call them Lew (as she sometimes signed her letters), Me (as she often signed her letters), and Flo (as she never signed her letters). Last I heard, Flo was in Hawaii (she sent me as nice shirt), Lew was in Seattle and Me was in Walnut Creek. But that was a while ago.
The letters gave off a deep erotic charge. That’s a little creepy — these are letters written from 1957 to 1961 by teenage girls — but the heart knows what the heart knows. The handwriting made me grow lightheaded. On one occasion, Me put a spot of perfume on one page; I imagined I could still smell it.
For age-appropriate music, listen to this.
Their personalities came through in the letters; all of them were heartbreakingly unguarded as they wrote. Me was bubbly and gossipy; Flo was straightforward and sunny; Lew was reserved, intense and smart. I’m giving Lew three adjectives, because she wrote the best and longest letters. I fell in love with all three of them again, but mostly I fell in love with Lew.
The letters brought back many poignant and hilarious moments, none of which I will share with you.
The letters were written on many kinds of paper, from personalized stationery (Flo) to plain white bond (Lew) to weird translucent onionskin (all three). The latter was a fad of the time; its illegibility was perhaps part of its allure.
The content was standard issue genteel teenager: gossip (including inevitable discussions of who liked whom), music, irritating parents, exaggerated boredom, plus delicate excursions into flattery, self-presentation, and various shades of affection (“I’m in love with you, but I don’t love you”) . Several were even SWAK (ask your parents).
For most of the period these letters were written, I was at a private boarding school; telephone calls were limited, and f2f contact was forbidden. Therefore, I needed words to retain the relationship, furious letters designed to amuse, seduce, flatter and show my whole heart to the person at the other mailbox. I have some notion of what my letters were like from the reactions to them: I believe I was needy and hyperbolic. But also, apparently, appealing: Two of the love affairs ended because of geographical considerations, the other because I ended it.
I dumped Me. I feel bad about it now.
I say “love affairs,” but the carnal part of things were limited to prolonged kissing and outside-the-clothes rubbing, usually in parked cars in exurban cul-de-sacs. No orgasms were attempted in the making of this movie. None of it felt chaste — it was just four hours of kissing, but oh, what kissing. The culture was restricted, but the human beings in it were still curious about what human beings are curious about. Puritanism is such a crock.
There were some surprises. This paragraph, from a Lew letter dated October 23, 1960: “As for the car, it is taken care of. Dad was out of town all last week, so it was in the shop then and is now fixed. It seems. however, that it will be quite expensive, since it had to have body work done. A new side and front fender had to be put on, and I don’t know what else. Dad will probably write to you and/or your mother about it.”
I have no memory of this. I wrecked a car, really? Did I hit something? Did Dad ever write me? Second: Ain’t it nice to be rich? I went on scholarship to private schools; the kids were rich except for me. Basically, I dated rich girls because that’s the pond I was fishing in. Not mansions-and-servants rich, but rich enough. Let’s-sneak-the-wrecked-car-by-Dad rich, anyway.
I could tell you more about Lew’s father (burdened by a secret sorrow), just from the letters. Also about Me’s father (strict) and Flo’s sister (athletic). None of these people left any other dent on history; this may be one of the last records of their existence. And, for that matter, one of the earliest records of mine.
Memory is ephemeral. Things that seemed so solid at the time fade into impermanence and invisibility. I have photographs of places I have visited, certificates of ceremonies I have attended, but without the augmentation of memory, they are only of interest to clothing historians of the mid-20th century, or writers of scholarly slang etymologies. Only I am interested in these letters; if I keep them until I die, my daughters will agree without comment to deep-six them. I know they will, because I did the same thing with a lot of mother’s stuff.
And why not? As has been frequently said: 100 years, all new people. Each generation has its own history, its own heroes, its own love affairs. So much joy, so much suffering, only to be supplanted by other triumphs, other tragedies. Bathing in nostalgia is fun, particularly when you realize that you’re in a tub reserved exclusively for your use. The thrill of these artifacts is not transferable; use them or lose them, or they will lose you.
But new memories can be added. Some decades after these letters were written, Lew and I met again. She was in town, and I took her to the Hayes Street Grill, my own little memory palace. It’s a meeting that neither of us were sure we wanted, but we seized the moment. We were uncomfortable at first, sipping water and studying the menu.
But then we started to talk. We discovered that we had thought a lot of the same thoughts over the past 30 years. We discovered ways to make each other laugh, and those ways seemed familiar. We discovered that we liked each other, and that we approved of the people each other had become. It was just, you know, really great. Maybe we weren’t so dopey back then after all.
OK, I know what you want. You’ve been wanting it for some time now. You want to know what they looked like, the long ago gallery of America’s sweethearts. Very well:
Now go take your own bath. You’re never too old for heartbreak.
Photography by Tracy Johnston
General competence by Michelle “She hasn’t heard my latest idea yet” Mizera