Signed, Sealed, Delivered
You’ve dropped off your child at college for the first time.
You remember where you were standing when you left him or her — in front of Peirce or the bookstore or in the narrow dim hallway of the dorm. You remember what your child was wearing, or perhaps you don’t. A few of you may have felt an odd relief as you walked away. But odds are many parents felt the hot sting of tears, arms strangely light after lugging those boxes up the stairs. The question you are asking yourself as you climb into the car is, “How long will it be before I hear something?” The answer is — not too long. But first, enjoy the quiet.
Most parents have, by this point, received a text or a phone call announcing that the roommate is fine, the food is fine, and classes are fine. Or not. Many things will change in our children’s experiences during the next few weeks. Let’s all take a deep breath and wait for … a letter. In the meantime, we can write one.
Call us old-fashioned or accuse me of bragging, but everyone in our family writes letters. They don’t have to be longhand (I get a cramp), but we write letters on paper, put them in envelopes, and send them off with a stamp. Yes, in my family, all four of us own cellphones and two of us even own smartphones. But when the two children left home one by one and headed to Kenyon, we agreed that having envelopes with paper inside them to record the adventure and the transition gave us far more to look forward to than hearing a text beep.
I became the designated archivist in our home, and now I have, in a slot on my desk, a neat little stack of our daughter’s letters that began in September 2011 and have taken us through her first three years (including six months at Oxford, where her writing arm also had to churn out 18 essays about medieval history). But, as she said in her second, long (ten-paged!) letter home, about her first fall away: “My letters may seem excessively detailed, but honestly I kind of like the mental exercise of sorting through everything and putting it on paper — it helps organize my mind as well as inform you. Plus — I really love getting mail and the old-fashioned completeness of letters.”
Our son’s letters are fewer — in all honesty, there is only a small handful from his freshman year — and he wrote more emails and texts than his sister did. But, he’s promised to do better this year and I’m being patient, because the letters he did write feel like the main thing, the essence of what he wanted to communicate to us, not the dribs and drabs. I remember the warm September afternoon I sat on our porch and read the first letter he sent home. It began, “Greetings from Kenyon! This constitutes my first letter home from college.” And it concluded, “I hope my fall semester doesn’t disappear too quickly.”
The exchange of letters takes time; there’s no possibility of an immediate reward. I am so used to email that I get impatient just looking at my own stamped letter sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be mailed to my daughter or my son. I wrote it — how can they live another second without getting it? And then I calm down. The kids are busy living; they will be happy (or possibly bored) to read of our doings back home. Then they can stuff our letters into a box or a drawer. I have their letters to us in that slot in my desk. They will be ours for awhile and then I’ll give them back to the letter-writers themselves. The letters are our kids’ histories.