Letters From The Past
Photo and Words By Richard Ong
As I sat down to write this, I felt a sudden pang of anxiety in the realization that I had lost and forgotten something wonderful I had taken for granted in my younger years. It was as if the ease of composition and rapid automation of words magically appearing in perfect alignment within the bright glow of the self-illuminated computer screen had somehow dehumanized us these past fifteen to twenty years.
Gone are the days when we used to wait with breathless anticipation to the loud clang of the mailbox straining to contain letters, magazines, parcels, and postcards from afar. All that was left were the magazines, parcels, unwanted
advertisements, and the occasional bills that had not yet been converted online. Those wonderful, beautiful, and carefully handwritten letters from friends became a curiosity of the past, patiently waiting inside a shoebox under layers of dust and strings of cobwebs in the attic, victims of the merciless onslaught of online text messages zipping at the speed of light across the globe.
These orphaned letters triggered a longing inside of me I had all but forgotten. My hand trembled as I gingerly wiped the fine white dust off the shoebox with a piece of cloth. I lifted the top and the years of adulthood peeled away to reveal the young man inside of me. It felt like Christmas and that I had traveled back in time to open my presents!
I was back in 1984 and my best friend from school in the Philippines spoke to me across the seas to North America in a voice I remembered well when I was still in elementary school. His handwriting changed in tune with his emotions as I read his letter. The passion of his foolish escapades forced the pen to drive hard indentations with a flourish on the back of the carefully folded piece of paper. I ran the tip of my fingers under the sheet and closed my eyes to feel his anger and frustration, his joy and laughter, like the subtle hum of a tuning fork penetrating my soul. I wiped the wetness from one eye and wondered what his life would’ve been all these years.
I picked up another letter from the shoebox and I felt myself jump forward in time to 1985. I stifled a smile at the faded photograph of my friend and English teacher back in Grade Six. She never stopped writing to me since we moved to Canada in 1980. She had the most elegant handwriting amongst all the letters in my collection. In spite of the political upheaval that affected her life and those of her students, she steadfastly prayed for my happiness, health and continued success. She was a ray of light shining through my correspondences. If I had the power to recommend someone for sainthood, it would be her. Sadly, without any warning, I lost contact with my dear friend. My letters to her last known address were returned unopened. She was bubbly and eager to tell more in her last missive. I’d always wondered what happened to her. Was she more involved in that same political crisis she used to talk about than she was willing to let on? As I traced my finger across the imprint of her face at the only photograph she ever sent to me, I found myself praying that somehow, somewhere, we’ll meet each other again in this lifetime.
Sifting through the pile, my heart leapt at the sight of a familiar purple envelope with the lavender seal. By then I was a freshman in college and I was passionately in love. The scent of the lavender seal on the envelope had long since faded away, but the memory of her sweetness was forever engraved on her letters. I could almost feel her hesitation as the words formed and were scratched out on paper with regards to a particularly delicate subject matter. We circled each other across the miles through the wit of our pen. I wooed her with my poetry and unspectacular artwork. She refused to give in and tried to infuse me with sisterly love, but I wanted more. I’d replayed the entire drama over and over again like a video tape recording. The multiple tears and creases on the letter was a testament to how much I’ve missed her.
My dry and calloused fingers rummage through the last few chapters of my personal time machine. I stopped to pick up a painted art paper from Japan dating back to 1994. A kaleidoscope of red, blue and yellow depicted a subtle floral theme to the outer layers of a cover within which revealed two narratives from a couple halfway around the world. My former co-worker at the university wrote long letters with a flourish. He described his near-Herculean efforts to maintain a balance between work and family life.
He missed his international friends and longed to return to Canada for another chance to work with us. His wife also wrote to me and expressed her strong desire to realize her dream of teaching English to Japanese students and in turn, Japanese culture to visiting residents from the West. She laughed and wondered whether her husband was really as busy as he wanted us to believe or whether he only felt busy. Each wrote with a distinct voice and handwriting that every mail I received felt like a conversation with this fun-loving couple from the Orient.
I sighed and leaned back to massage the back of my neck. Dawn was beginning to break in the late hour and I still had an essay to write. The blinking cursor on the blank screen accused me of delaying the inevitable task at hand. I felt the last letter slip from my fingertips. I bent to pick it up and stopped to muse over the haphazardly tossed pieces of paper around my chair and that is when it hit me.
Envelopes of varying colors and textures laid scattered on the floor of my work room. Each contained a message that never failed to bring laughter and tears, an irreplaceable essence I’d never find in any text message or email.
The nondescript shoebox from the attic contained artifacts from my own personal museum. It was a time capsule that froze moments in my life within the confines of my thoughts. The letters were undeniably a part of who I was today.
Memories of a bygone era.
My letters from the past.
Your piece touched me and reminded me of how much we have lost in this instant, technological world in which we live. Thank you for a well-written and thought-provoking piece! - Sara Etgen-Baker
Excellent Article. After reading your article I went upstairs looking for few hand written letters from my Father. People have a changed a lot and the concept of writing is fading out. Hope the cycle comes back and people start to express their emotions thru handwritten letters.