The summer I was 13 years old, I wrote my grandmother every four days. My mother had stressed that she was very lonely and looked forward to hearing from us. I figured I’d make it my personal mission to write her, and even carefully gridded out a calendar with a ball point pen on the back of a 3×5 card so I could keep track of when I sent letters to her.
I didn’t have much to say to her. I just wrote about my life, as if I was mailing her bits of my diary. But they were never personal–just things about how I had rearranged my bedroom furniture and had just bought a new dress that I was planning to wear to church the following Sunday. I was thirteen. I made a lot of small talk just so she could hear from me.
I’d always ask how she was and ended every letter with “Say ‘hi’ to Boots for me.” Boots was her cat.
She’d never write back. She wasn’t much of a letter writer, and didn’t see extremely well. In fact, I never expected a response. I just enjoyed the whole process of writing her a battery of letters from choosing the stationary so as not to bore her, to placing the stamp on the corner of the envelopes, to neatly addressing it to her. I always put stickers on the envelopes. I loved to fill up the stationary with words. It felt important. And it felt private–my communication to just her.
I didn’t “love” her. My family sucked at stuff like that. I thought I did. It’s just that my family didn’t quite set the example for genuine relationships. We were a family of protocol and morals in place of hugs and fun. So I thought I was showing her that I loved her by writing her letters and letting her know that she was thought of and I felt good when I imagined her opening her mailbox to find another letter from me. They always mentioned that I loved her. I thought that’s what I was supposed to write. I didn’t hate her either. I just didn’t have a close relationship with her at all. And the letters were a one-way conversation.
By the end of the summer, my interest in sending letter after letter subsided. Looking back now, I’m sure that she must have braced for their dwindling and eventual disappearance. She must have known I’d grow up. I never talked to her on the phone. She was my mom’s mom more than she was my grandma, and she talked to my mom on the phone almost every night. I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. She was there for my mom. Not for me. I never resented her or wanted more. I never thought anything of it. That was just the way my family was.
In fact, there was mostly distance among us all. And if we needed to say something important, we’d say it on paper. Or in cards. In notes. On stationary. Because that’s where love and appreciation went: in ink on dry, folded pieces of paper. My immediate family actually sent each other thank you notes after every birthday and Christmas. That’s how protocol and militant our appreciation was for each other. We stated it so as to check it off. Mother’s Day cards were a “thank you for ….” and then the list of things I realized that my mom did for me, like driving me to volley ball practice and cooking dinner every night. But the act was nothing but obligatory. I never felt like going up to my mom and hugging her ever as a child. I did what I had to do to not be a complete asshole. I jumped through the hoops. I sent the notes. I was polite. She got my respect but not my love.
I haven’t saved any notes from my parents, except for a strange one from my dad on one Thanksgiving when I was in college. We didn’t love each other, but we bought a lot of stationary and never said much important.
One of the only real moments in the mounds of correspondence that actually affected me was what I read at the bottom of a handwritten note that my grandmother had inserted inside a birthday card to me. She’d never responded to any of my letters, but in this note, she thanked me for all of the letters and notes. And at the bottom, she’d written, “Boots says ‘hi'” from her cat. That’s as close to us having any communication between us that was ours. That one line.
I hate birthday cards and letters and notes now. I am skeptical of anything on paper. If I have something to say to someone, I’ll say it. Or I’ll send an email. But it’s not going to be on a holiday. I’m not alone in that. I figure there are a lot of people that also feel that the Hallmark shit is overrated. But I loathe it. I avoid it. I am starting to understand the kind of shit that replaces a big-ass bunch of letters and thank you notes and I think of the mound of them I must have written. I think of the ceremonious act of putting pen to paper. And of the recitation of words and phrases appropriate for the occasion. And of the stamps I wasted. And of the needless excitement over choosing the stationary. I lump it all together and it’s knee height. There are hundreds of dollars in stamps. A myriad of inks and signatures and stickers on the envelopes. I look down and see the bulk of our “loving communication” and I am baffled.
But I remember the texture of the paper on which my grandmother finally responded to the steady of stream of letters I sent the summer of 1993. I remember her handwriting. And I remember the squiggly quotation marks around “Boots says ‘hi’,” That phrase was my prize for courting my grandmother all summer. It was a response. It meant she’d read every letter, although she hadn’t ever mentioned them. I have no idea what she got me for my birthday. But the card was light pink, as most cards for granddaughters are, and it had that note inside. In all of the pencil and pen pushing my family did, something got through. One phrase. One sign of life. One small miracle in a sea of dry paper.