This might surprise you: I have a Master’s Degree in communicative disorders. That translated on a paystub to speech-and-language therapist, and the disorders I expertly remedied were maladies like lisps in the young, stuttering among the adolescent, and aphasia with stroke patients. Now, however, in my retirement from that field, I’m ironically colliding with more and more communicative roadblocks—which I find disorienting. I have become my own disordered client. I miss my days of fluency; I long for the time when I could retrieve a word the nanosecond I needed to use it. I am trying hard not to blame my chronological age. I prefer to blame the age in which I live.
As for communicative elegance, I miss the old tried-and-true forms of letter writing. If it weren’t for me, stationery stores in my area would have gone out of business long ago. Give me, please, envelopes with my return address embossed on the flap. Let me cull the racks of greeting cards for the perfect get-well note. I have a stock of sympathy cards ready to go. As soon as someone drops dead, I’m at the ready with a beautiful card to convey my sadness over the loved one’s departure.
But, where can I find those aerograms (aerogrammes?) of long ago with their sky-blue expanse tempting the writer to think, “I have a yawning blank slate on which to write to my father from Europe”? I must ask him to please send money to get me through the remaining weeks here as I find my European adventure inhales my 1974-Europe-on-$5/day-allotment. And, I’ll write legibly if microscopically–filling the aerogram’s expanse with my loopy handwriting. I’ll consume every inch all the way to the gummy margins and the news will be all about the sights and sounds and smells of Europe. My dad will think, “She has so much news and yet sadly is limited by the dimensions of this sheet of paper. She is so thoughtful to write to me. She probably needs some extra cash.” I’ll leave off the parts about riding on the back of motor scooters through the alleyways of Paris, followed by a night of passion (or just sex). Probably wise not to mention the run-in with the Italian police the night a group of us drank too much vino and one (extremely handsome) Italian young man threw a chair into the café’s plate-glass window. This news will just take up precious real estate on the aerogram.
I sent the letters home from the American Express offices adjacent to the squares, piazzas, and avenues across Europe. And, those offices are where I’d go, two weeks (!) later, to collect my funds. Except for this one time. I had mailed the letter from Rome and had expectantly appeared at the Paris Amex front desk 10 days later after depositing my increasingly shabby backpack in the anteroom of the drab office. No letter was forthcoming. No letter meant no money. And, in Paris, having fewer-than-expected resources was a complete bummer. In fact, after spending weeks abroad and burning my way through hundreds of parental dollars, I had to cut my trip short. This confirmed my notion, of which I had convinced myself: My father wanted me home. He was not playing fair, which wasn’t like him. And, a few hours after arriving home and dumping my now thoroughly disgusting backpack next to our washing machine, I confronted my dad in a voice so whiny and accusatory that I could see his eyes beginning to tear. As he waxed poetic about how much he missed me, how relieved he was that I returned home safely, and how thrilled he was that I enjoyed myself, I barked a response that actually caused him to cry. Some choice phrases included, “How could he?” “Didn’t I deserve to be happy?” “I was counting on him!” Clauses that now make me nauseous even as I write them. It turns out my father never received my letter from Rome. I know this because that letter arrived a couple of weeks after I had returned home.
What I don’t miss, however, are telegrams. I have personally received only a couple in my life, and neither of them were good news. My parents, too, seemed to attract bad news like metal filings to a magnet. Distressing news arrived on these bland-colored small sheets of paper looking like anonymously sent ransom notes. Stop. The ones I recall coughed up news of a fatal car accident (a cousin); stop. Cancelled travel plans; stop. Reunion cancelled; stop. And, one epic news flash of a nephew’s murder. Stop. Ok, I’ll stop with the stop. No one probably remembers what I’m referring to anyway.
But, speaking of telegrams, who doesn’t miss Western Onion? That being a send-up of Western Union’s telegram-delivery service. Disappointingly, I have received only one. Actually, it was for my husband. A strapping young man came to our door during Marty’s 40th-birthday celebration. The messenger sported an askew cap and an epaulet-adorned jacket and held a telegram in his hands like it was the Torah. Placing a red-and-white sash that read, “Kiss Me. It’s My Birthday,” around Marty’s neck, the telegram bearer proceeded to tear open his jacket and fling aside his hat in a Mary Tyler Moore-meets-Minneapolis manner to reveal his astonishingly fit torso and teeny tiny underpants. He sang “Happy Birthday” to the birthday boy. I mean, who wouldn’t miss that?
Here’s something else I miss: Christmas letters. Not the short nonsense found on social media. I’m talking about the luscious, bloated testimonies of success, joy, health, and happiness. The ones I’m referring to came typed, single-spaced and the writer used up both sides of the flimsy paper before lovingly folding and inserting it into a glittery holiday card with an artistic representation of a fireplace adorned with Christmas stockings which were, as they should be, trimmed with velvety swatches of fabric. Digital shots weren’t part of the Yuletide repertoire back then—at least not that I can remember. You had to trust the sender’s writing skills to evoke how good looking the new wife was or how adorable those grandchildren were. If they mentioned a vacation to Tasmania, it was up to you to go look up what that locale had going for it. Isn’t that why you held on to the World Book Encyclopedia?
Communication was simpler and less disorderly back then.
But when email started to replace the mailed-with-the-Christmas-card annual friends’ updates, I was optimistic about the possibilities. First of all, the internet allowed us to throw out the World Books. Another plus? Reading email missives now took little time; I could use my mouse to hastily scroll to the salutation. Or, a particularly obnoxious letter, once cut and pasted, made quick fodder for a sarcastic email to our mutual friend with the insertion of OMG before sending it off. Time to get creative with cutting and pasting.
This, in fact, is what I thought I was doing when, upon finishing a lengthy year-end monograph from a friend we met on an cruise several years prior, I forwarded the email to my husband with the following insertion at the top of the email:
“More than I need to know.”
About an hour later came a reply—not from my husband but from the original email writer:
“I am so sorry that our Christmas letter offended you. I will take you off our annual list.”
Here’s where my communicative skill set actually paid off, I thought. No more soporific musings from this guy; I was on his shit list and I was better for it. But, I felt so guilty because I had never intended to let him know how I actually felt—I was trying to live an honest, authentic life and not be a hurtful wise-ass. I was simply sharing my frustration with my husband so that we could roll our eyes simultaneously as one does in a loving marriage.
Instead of letting this go, though, I communicated with the writer once again—this time intentionally:
“Otis, I am sorry that I hurt your feelings. It was never my intention to do so. Instead I thought I was forwarding the message to Marty and mistakenly I hit “reply.” I imagine that something like this may have happened to you at least once.”
Otis replied with the most amazing response—although it took him two weeks to do so:
“Actually, Naomi, your email made me think about the fact that this letter contained information that was indeed more than you needed to know given the brevity of our friendship. From now on, I will send out two versions of these letters so that our friends like you are spared the lengthy details.”
I never received another year-end, wrap-up email but there he is on Facebook. So I can read snippets (or not) if I so choose. I love happy endings.
But before there was a simple error in button pushing where emails were concerned, and prior to the post office’s tardiness at delivering an aerogram from Europe to its intended destination in the States, and way before I was picking out personalized stationery to have on hand for thank-you notes, there was my mother communicating with her young adult son through the mail. Monthly. Like clockwork.
My mother would wait for her son, Michael’s, letters like an underfed wild animal. If it were around the time a letter might arrive, my mother would pace, check her watch, open and shut the living room curtains to see if the mailbox showed evidence of delivery. I was just a small child watching my mom and her frantic obsessive behavior wondering if one day I too would hold such power over her. I must have known, even then, that I would not. After all, she lived with me; our bedrooms were adjacent to one another; I rode in her car and sat at her kitchen table; she dried my hair after a bath and kissed me goodbye when I left for school. This intimacy played out in a parallel universe to the one that she shared with her son, Michael, who was 12 years old when I was born. He was never allowed—or at least invited–to live with us. In fact, in 1941, when Michael was 2 and my mother and Michael’s father divorced, my young brother went to live with his aunt and never again lived with his mother. Our mother. I can’t tell you what a loss that was to have missed out on being in the same house, on a daily basis, with such an extraordinary, iconoclastic woman. And the loss to my mother of not living with her boy—never packing his lunchbox; not going to his school performances; did she ever meet even one of his teachers or friends? The enormity of such grief undoubtedly initiated her battle, for the rest of her life, with her heart’s health.
Michael did not live a long life. He died at the age of 25 under what in those days were termed mysterious circumstances. To me, however, at age 12 when he died, there was nothing mysterious about any of what I was witnessing at home: a mother whose sorrow was swiftly killing her and rupturing the lifeline she and I shared together. The day Michael died, she took to her bed, and each night thereafter I would bring her both her 5pm bourbon-on-the-rocks and the daily mail.
About a month after Michael died, a letter came addressed to my mother in Michael’s boyish, scratchy penmanship. I delivered both the letter and the cocktail to her and stood sentry outside her bedroom door because even I knew that this weird turn of events was unexplainable and unprecedented. But, I never heard a peep from inside my mother’s bedroom other than the clinking of ice cubes as they rattled against the glass and the stationery rustling in her hands. I heard her clear her throat and blow her nose. When I went to check on her, I saw the bourbon had been drained from her cocktail glass. But, the letter was nowhere to be seen. She coolly asked me if I were hungry and if I might help her with dinner preparation. I tell you now that even I could have used a shot of bourbon. Instead, I poured her another round, and she didn’t refuse it.
My mom died two months later. Probably it was a broken, make that shattered, heart. Her doctors said it was not mysterious; it was a heart attack. That was when I started pouring evening cocktails for my dad, who was just as needy of a stiff drink as my mother had been.
Then one day I discovered the letter that Michael had written. Placed by my mom, perhaps haltingly and with tenderness, between her nightgowns, the letter seemed to levitate—begging for attention. This was the letter that she had received after he had died. The envelope had been addressed to my mother, but the letter itself unbelievably began with:
Michael went on to say how much he missed her, loved her, and would see her soon. He was thrilled that soon they would have a child together and he would find a home for them that was comfortable and cozy – just as any young couple would dream of as they started their life together. He signed it:
“With love from your husband, Mike”
Michael must have sent his letter to Carol in an envelope addressed to my mom; perhaps he sent a son-to-mother letter in the envelope intended for Carol. There is no way for me to know. I do know, however, that my mother was informed of her son’s marriage and his impending fatherhood through a letter never intended for her. And, she died never understanding why communication had been so cruelly distorted and certainly disordered.