“Look!” she said.
“Those people are Amish,” you said. “They ride in buggies instead of cars.”
She must have been about seven.
“I want to be Amish,” she said.
You started to laugh but then you didn’t, because you saw that she was serious. This was out in the country, far away from the city in which you lived then and in which she still lives when she’s home from college. She followed the buggy’s slow, creaking journey with her eyes until the horse rounded a corner and it was gone.
“Yup,” she said. “That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up. Amish.”
She’s pretty much grown up now, but she still declares, once in a while, that she’s going to be Amish. Computer, cell phone, car, short skirts and tank tops and bikinis and movies and late nights at First Avenue and airplanes and passport and and and and and all of it, she says, all of it can go. She will gladly give it up to be Amish.
But not really. The collection of books by Amish people and about Amish people, the little Amish boy’s handmade jacket, the Amish mug, the buggy crossing signs you bought her as a joke, her whole collection of useless Amish artifacts notwithstanding, she wouldn’t really do it.
Even though she is the girl who, at family reunions held at a timewarp inn in the mountains of New Hampshire, will square dance for hours, collect eggs from the chicken coop, gather with her cousins and aunts and uncles three times a day at a long table, sit entranced at a magic show and play Bingo.
Fully part of the electronified world and all its gadgets, she still wants it to slow down. She wants it to be simpler. She wants more homemadeness.
You don’t blame her. You do too. When she and her sister were younger, you read them to sleep every night. Lots of books, including the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder series. A cliche, but so what. Even when you were little, back when the world wasn’t as fast, you wanted to live that log cabin life. You wanted to gasp in wonder at the sight of an orange in your Christmas stocking.
You wanted a letter –the very paper it was written on– to be so precious that you saved up your news for months and then wrote diagonally, in tiny script, beginning in one upper corner triangle and covering the entire page before turning it over and filling every millimeter of the other side.
A handwritten letter is a beautiful thing. See that box way up in the righthand corner? In case you can’t tell (this was supposed to be a biggish, sharp photo but, per usual, it ended up tiny and indistinct), it’s full of handwritten letters sent to you over many years.
That particular box is one of ten such boxes that fill three long wall cupboards. Open the doors and there they all are: pretty much every letter ever sent to you from high school on. You never throw out a handwritten letter. Or a handwritten card. Or a handwritten postcard.
How could you? Someone, somewhere, sat down at a table, or a desk, or propped a book on their lap on a train or a bus, or pulled down the tray table on an airplane, and laid out a piece of stationery, or a notecard, or a postcard, or a napkin or the back side of a bank statement or an electric bill, and picked up a pen, or a pencil, or a crayon, and then wrote your name.
Dear Dragon Lady.
Dear daughter, granddaughter, sister, friend.
Like so much else –the journals you’ve kept about your youthful companions, the notebooks filled with scribbled thoughts and ideas for future stories and novels and poems– you never looked at any of these saved letters until a few months ago. For decades you’ve dragged them all with you wherever you went, from apartment to apartment to house to house, thousands of miles in all: tripled-up plastic garbage bags, sagging coverless cardboard boxes, even double-bagged brown paper grocery bags full of them, hundreds and hundreds of letters. Thousands? Probably.
But when the Amish aspirant went to college you hauled them all out, determined once and for all to go through them, organize them, put your life in order, beginning with these sagging boxes and bags of letters letters letters. For God’s sake, anyone looking in that closet would think you were one of those hoarders.
Besides, everything in you was raw, anyway, with the Amish aspirant so suddenly gone, her room all messy and her bed unmade as if she would be climbing into it that night, but no, she wouldn’t be, she was a thousand miles away, so it couldn’t hurt to rip off a little more skin. Right?
But it didn’t hurt at all. That was the amazing thing. It was like watching a silent movie playing inside your brain, sorting those letters into piles by sender.
You only read some –it would take a year to read through all those letters– but even in the not-many you looked through, you couldn’t have imagined how transfixing it would be, just a few sentences written twenty years ago being all it took to conjure up the face and laughter of someone you love. You couldn’t have imagined how hard you would laugh. Or that sitting there holding a letter from someone you love would feel as if you were holding their hand.
Did you even know you had so many friends? That there were so many people out there you adored?
Yes. You did. But to see them all strewn around the bed and the floor and the shelves, piled by sender, was astonishing. The room was full of words, floating in the air. Full of voices. Faces.
Everyone’s handwriting is distinct. Most of the letters you needed only to glance at your name and address and you knew immediately which pile it belonged to: Ellen, with her distinctive E’s. Meredith, with her forward-slanting print. Greg, with his p.s.’s that scroll around the corners of the yellow legal paper. Christine, with her Palmer method script. Doc, those perfect capital letters in black Sharpie. RJ, tall leaning lowercase. Stinky, a third-grader’s scrawl. JO’s delicate half-cursive that looks as if she barely presses down on the pen. Jeff, whose y’s have that long hooked tail. Gabrielle, leftie with the backslanting leftie script. Bock, with his multi-colored crayoned envelopes. Oatie, with her many exclamation marks and swirling capital O’s.
Aerograms. Pale blue lightweight airmail fold-and-stick stationery on which you wrote and received dozens of letters, back in the day. Here’s a pile from RJ, sent mostly from Asia, during that year or two when all his addresses began with Poste restante.
You remember him calling you –this was right after you’d both graduated from college, and you were living in the tiny room trying to be a writer and typing papers to pay the rent and he had gotten an office job of some kind, insurance? finance?– and telling you that he felt as if he was suffocating. That he had to get out.
“What should I do?” he said. “What am I going to do?”
You didn’t know. You sat there at your typewriter, propped on two apple crates in front of your folding chair, all of which you’d scavenged from the curb on garbage night. It was a penniless sort of life but it was penniless on your own terms. You listened to him talk about traveling, and next thing you knew, poof – he was gone, quit his job, jumped on a plane, with the trickle of aerograms that began shortly thereafter as proof.
RJ, poste restante.
Those aerograms are here in this box, right now, so many years later, reminding you of the day he came traveling back to Boston, having lost thirty pounds that he didn’t have to lose, giant smile on that skeletal, handsome face.
What are your youthful companions going to do when they are the age you are now, without boxes of handwritten letters to sift through?
“I’m going to be Amish when I grow up.”
Is this what she means, by being Amish? Does being Amish mean having boxes of handwritten letters to sift through? Touch me, says the poet, remind me who I am.