Between those reminders and the writing itself, I can feel myself slowing down. This is not the kind of writing I can blast through at a messy speed, correcting later. This kind of writing requires a deliberation that little else in my life requires: one thought, one word, one sentence at a time.
In that sense, the letters are as much for me as for their recipients: a thin, scrawled thread connecting us across the miles, linking their grief with my grief, their joy with my joy, their generosity with my thanks. Sometimes this practice reminds me to act on my own generosity, a way to tell people I love or admire that I’m thinking of them. I like to imagine how surprised they will be to find a handwritten letter tucked among the bills and the ads they never glance at for products they will never need.
Not that making time is easy. It may have been a mistake to have hit on such an ambitious project during a pandemic that keeps making nearly everything harder. But I don’t regret it. Despite one setback after another — the death of my beloved father-in-law, health issues in the family, major surgery — this project is self-rewarding, so I keep finding my way back to it, and to my grandmother’s secretary.
Finding time for anything that matters will always be a challenge, but the notes themselves aren’t hard. All that dread, for years, always putting off and putting off the obligation of a thank-you note or the duty of a condolence letter — why did I waste so much time on dread?
With every renewed effort, I marvel again at how easy it is. How it takes almost nothing to write just a few lines, nothing to fix a stamp in the corner, to walk the letter out to the mailbox and lift the little metal flag to tell the mail carrier to stop at this house. I wish I had known long ago how much pleasure I would take in lifting that little red flag. I wish I’d remembered how much I love the smell of paper and ink and the memory of my grandmother, sitting at this very secretary, the way she said, “You’re the writer in the family” and made it real.
This is the 326th day of the year, and it is clear now that I will not come remotely close to making my goal of 365 handwritten notes. At best, I will hit 200. Still, I’ve spent this hard year being reminded, again and again, of the magic I recognized as a child at my grandmother’s elbow. As Thanksgiving approaches, I am filled with gratitude for the people I want to greet, the people I hope to console, the people I need to thank. And they’re all only a mailbox away.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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