Six saggy old cardboard boxes full of hundreds, maybe thousands, of handwritten or typed letters sit behind closed cupboard doors in my bedroom. These letters date back to high school. They’re from my mother, my grandmothers, my sisters, my brother, boys and men I loved, my best friend, other dear friends, and friends I barely remember but who were important to me at one point in my life. The envelopes, with those wavy lines across the canceled stamps, bear testament to all the places I’ve lived in my life. Unlike almost anything else in my life, I can’t throw them out. Sometimes they have lived in the dark trunk of my car until once again they are hauled into a different cupboard in a new house or apartment, where they rest in darkness next to their neighbors. The other day I opened a box at random and pulled out a letter from my grandmother. She had been to a movie with my parents and what an interesting, if confusing, movie it had been. Afterward they had gone to a Chinese buffet and my parents had treated her, how lovely of them. She was having trouble with that darned knee of hers. And then came this ending line, reminiscing about my grandfather, dead many years at this point: What a beautiful life we had together, but it wasn’t long enough. My grandmother, and that single, uncharacteristic sentence from her, written in the shaky Palmer script of her very old age, is why I love this poem so much.
Finding a Box of Family Letters, by Dana Gioa
The dead say little in their letters
they haven’t said before.
We find no secrets, and yet
how different every sentence sounds
heard across the years.
My father breaks my heart
simply by being so young and handsome.
He’s half my age, with jet-black hair.
Look at him in his navy uniform
grinning beside his dive-bomber.
Come back, Dad! I want to shout.
He says he misses all of us
(though I haven’t yet been born).
He writes from places I never knew he saw,
and everyone he mentions now is dead.
There is a large, long photograph
curled like a diploma—a banquet sixty years ago.
My parents sit uncomfortably
among tables of dark-suited strangers.
The mildewed paper reeks of regret.
I wonder what song the band was playing,
just out of frame, as the photographer
arranged your smiles. A waltz? A foxtrot?
Get out there on the floor and dance!
You don’t have forever.
What does it cost to send a postcard
to the underworld? I’ll buy
a penny stamp from World War II
and mail it downtown at the old post office
just as the courthouse clock strikes twelve.
Surely the ghost of some postal worker
still makes his nightly rounds, his routine
too tedious for him to notice when it ended.
He works so slowly he moves back in time
carrying our dead letters to their lost addresses.
It’s silly to get sentimental.
The dead have moved on. So should we.
But isn’t it equally simple-minded to miss
the special expertise of the departed
in clarifying our long-term plans?
They never let us forget that the line
between them and us is only temporary.
Get out there and dance! the letters shout,
adding, Love always. Can’t wait to get home!
And soon we will be. See you there.
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