A thousand years ago, when I went off to college, my mother wrote me letters, because there was no such thing as text messaging. Why, there wasn't even any email, if you can believe it!!! She wrote real, actual letters, sometimes as many as three in a week. "You've got mail" meant there was a paper envelope lying in a physical mailbox. I got mail, and I got packages from home, and I was the envy of everyone on my dorm floor.
Z-Mom wrote to me, and I wrote to her. As I moved on to graduate school, and then all over the place for various and sundry postdocs and other jobs, I continued writing letters to her. During these years, "long distance" phone bills became an irrelevance as competition introduced one rate for unlimited calling; tethered phones evolved into cordless things; cell phones appeared and then became ubiquitous and then turned into smart phones and now threaten to make what we came to call the "land line" obsolete. Z-Mom and I always talked on the phone a lot, more after it got cheaper to do so, but even with phone calls, we never stopped writing to each other. PC's, of course, also appeared on the scene during this time - my senior thesis was typed on an electronic typewriter, my dissertation on a Macintosh Plus - and they too got cheaper, faster, and ubiquitous. And email came along with them.
At some point, even Z-mom got a computer at home, and an email address (incorporating the name of her favorite candy bar). She was happy to receive pictures of her great-grandchildren, and jokes forwarded from some friends in town, but she never really took to sending emails. So Z-mom and I kept writing to each other. I had gotten in the habit of sending her a postcard from every place I went, even if I was only there for two days for some less than glamorous business trip. Greetings from Ames, Iowa!... I've been in Austin since yesterday... Greetings from Fargo, North Dakota!...
Those are the actual (totally fascinating, I know) opening lines from postcards I sent to Z-mom in October of 1999, June of 2001, and November of 2001, respectively. I know this because, as it turns out, Z-mom has apparently saved just about every card and letter I've ever sent to her. I can look back through them and trace my travels, observe the ups and downs of my life and work as reported to her, relive events and even whole vacations I'd sort of forgotten. I went to Cape Hatteras in 2002? Oh yes...that's when those undated photos in the album are from!
The most hilarious postcard I've found so far, however, is not one I wrote. It's one my ex sent to Z-mom in November of 1991 while we were living in Europe, during the month I was away from him working at my German boss's collaborator's lab in Israel. It reads in part
[Zuska] will be gone for another 12 days or so. At least we talk often by electronic mail, which takes only an hour or less to get there, so we can even discuss things back and forth in the same day. I wish everyone had electronic mail, it is really quick and easy.
Electronic mail! The brand spanking new form of communication! Takes an hour or less to arrive! In the beginning of that same year, my German boss-to-be had wanted to communicate with me via this fancy electronic mail but alas! we did not have such a thing in my lab at Duke yet. So we had to arrange the details of my postdoc, arrival in Germany, and the apartment he was taking for me via the other available high tech form of communication...fax.
I love what Z-mom's cache of letters and postcards gives back to me. When I was much younger, I religiously kept a daily diary from about age 7 or so to age 17. Then I fell out of the habit. Writing to Z-mom has been something of a substitute, I now see. There's a whole series of postcards I sent her from travels in Europe, which are wonderful to have, since the ex got most of the photos.
Above all I am grateful that she wrote to me so much when I was an undergraduate, for by doing so she taught me the habit of writing letters, and the tangible joy a piece of mail can impart when you are lonely and away from your loved ones. Sometimes now we talk on the phone two or three times in a day, but I still write to her. All her life she has always enjoyed getting and sorting the day's mail. You might think that now she is in assisted living and no longer has to worry about dealing with bills and banking that the urgency of the daily mail would drop away, but you would be wrong. She is still just as eager for each day's mail delivery, and it seems more important than ever that it should contain something other than Reader's Digest asking her to renew now. Every holiday, no matter how small, was an excuse for her to send me a card when I was an undergraduate, and so now I return the favor. I haunt the Hallmark display in the grocery store to see what crazy special holiday cards are up next, and I buy one, and I send it off. I look for "just because" cards that might give her a laugh, because laughter is good for you. I buy "series" notecards - spring, summer, fall, winter; numbers 1 through 4 of a whimsical bug and flower illustration - and send them off in series, so she can anticipate the next one.
I write to her so she will have mail, but I also write to her for myself. Not because someday I'll get to read my cards and letters again, and remember oh yeah, 2011 was the summer I put in the climbing rosebush, but because writing to her is a way I stay connected to her, a way of emulating her, a way of saying "this is a part of you that is also a part of me."