Flat Rate Archives by Mary-Colleen Jenkins

The boxes are sitting on my Seattle steps, bright white against the dark, mildew-stained stairs. I heft them up; they’re surprisingly heavy. I elbow my way inside the front door and drop them on the table with a thump. The red and blue lettering reveals nothing about what’s inside, though I have my suspicions. I find scissors and slide one blade through the clear packing tape.

Flat rate boxes are a marvel: we can fit anything we want into them, no matter how heavy, and ship them across the country for one low price. My dusty storage boxes in Ohio, long forgotten, are being downsized. My mother is emboldened by the low cost. She is shipping the detritus of my youth to me one medium-sized, flat rate box at a time.

But what to do with them?

This is my dilemma. My drawers are already filled with scraps, bits, pieces. Newspaper articles, half-finished poems, notes for haiku, drawings from the kids, kudos given long ago for acts unremembered. Post cards, lists, film negatives. My mind drifts backwards, always has.

These thin, nondescript cardboard boxes contain the elusive, fragmentary stuff of memory. Their arrival has hurled me headlong into a hurricane rush of imagery, words, and emotion. Old memories are again fresh as the rain that soaked the cardboard edges of the boxes as they sat on the front steps waiting for me.

I pull out stacks of letters, their envelopes still crisp after so many years in the dark. There are dozens of them, all mixed together. The letters smell of paper dust and old libraries. I think back to my days working in the rare books collection of the library during college. Long afternoons spent in the climate-controlled vault, shelving rare editions, books that only researchers with special permissions had access to. Hours spent reading and organizing the personal correspondence of journalism magnate E.W. Scripps—the thin onionskin paper, letters typed in duplicate by an anonymous, probably overworked secretary. I was trained to treat envelopes, postage, paper with the utmost respect and care. Most of them are digitized now, but the hardcopies are still hoarded in the archives as treasures of a bygone age.

This flat-rate archive spans my own bygone age. It is evidence of a particularly transition-ridden time: moving to a new town, the change from high school to college, the shift from undergraduate to graduate school. I see the handwriting and, even before I focus enough to read the names, I know which of my long ago friends sent each one.

The letters inside these envelopes echo back to me the shared experience we all had of leaving home for the first time and making our way in the world. But even if I didn’t have the letters themselves, the envelopes are artifacts enough for anyone to follow our journey into adulthood. The dates stamped on the outside show a flurry of letter writing at the start of these years, a tapering off in the middle, and then, eventually, the letters come to an end as we gain confidence in where we’re headed. The addresses show our moves from one place to another, from cheap apartment to cheap apartment, with brief layovers at our parents’ houses. The later letters are typed out on computers, their dot-matrix ink now fading.

When I rifle through these boxes, trying to decide how to handle this rush of memory, I see the handwriting of my two grandmothers. I catch a glimpse of the precisely written addresses, the classically formed letters–themselves icons of a lost era. These letters bring my grandmothers vividly to mind in a way photographs of them do not. Photos show their images, but from a formal distance. Photographs show my grandparents on “occasions,” but the letters are based on everyday life.

I hear their voices, again, through words on the page. The “God bless you!” at the end of each letter from Grandma Lynch. Grandma Flynn’s funny expressions, “We have green grass again—and we also have scads of something else—Box Elder bugs. They are driving me up the wall.”

On visits to Wisconsin when I was a child, I lingered in their kitchens, listening while they worked and talked “grown up” talk with my mother. I didn’t know who they were talking about and didn’t really care. I just wanted to be in their domains, to listen to their voices, to absorb their presence. The letters they later wrote to me were my admission as an equal into that grown up world. My grandmothers summarized for me in their letters what they always told my mother in the kitchen: who was at the dinner party, which relatives were coming to town, what was happening at church, the description of a new recipe, a little bit of gossip.

These pieces of paper are an inheritance from my grandmothers. Their letters are a physical manifestation of love. Each of my grandmothers selected the stationery, took time from her day to write and tell me what had happened in her life, carefully folded and creased the paper, sealed it, and sent it out from Wisconsin to wherever I happened to be.

Each of the letters from friends, scrawled in the wee hours of the morning, is a gift, too. A gift of time and friendship that cannot be replicated with a text message or social media update. Each moment described, each question pondered, each “I just wanted to say hi!” required a conscious effort. A handwritten letter is a time-oriented task, a true investment in friendship and connection.

It’s been years since I received—or sent—a wonderfully thick, handwritten letter full of news and observations. With the rush of technology changing every aspect of how we communicate, I often hear and, to be honest, worry a little about the death of this or that: the death of the book, the death of traditional newspapers, the death of handwriting. I find comfort in knowing that technological advances often signal a sort of evolution rather than annihilation, but I know this is not true of the letter. I knew long before the advent of the laptop and the internet that the art of letter writing was on its deathbed, and that is one of the reasons I kept this jumbled archive in the corner of my parents’ dark basement.

mary-collen jenkinsMary-Colleen Jenkins learned early in her career that teaching undergraduate composition classes does not necessarily provide the motivation to do personal writing. And that early parenting, while great at providing material, can hide the imagination under a bushel basket of exhaustion. In 2008, the elementary school years arrived at the Jenkins household, and Mary-Colleen started her book blog Too Fond of Books.It was meant to kick start her writing again and has been going strong since.In August, Mary-Colleen’s blog post about the new, sanitized edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was honored as one of BlogHer’s 2011 Voices of the Year. Mary-Colleen lives with her family in Seattle, where she works as a freelance editor and writing coach.  In the not-so-distant future, she will be contributing book reviews to Hippocampus. Flat Rate Archives is her first published essay in a literary magazine.

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  • Rhrmay

    Great article, MC!  There is nothing better than opening up those old letters and I hope, in this electronic age, our children find some way to relive their lives as we can.

  • I have several boxes of those old letters too. Some from my grandmother. They do bring her back — the way she crossed out her typos (she always typed her letters), and wrote the corrections in spidery blue ink. Email can’t compare. Great essay. Thanks.

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  • Roger

    Pretty cool essay. Letter writing has gone the way of the Dodo for almost all in the age of email. Used to like swapping letters with you and my cousins etc.

    • Mary-Colleen

      I’ve still got some from you in those boxes, Roger!

  • Laura

    Beautiful imagery in this piece. I appreciate the symbols and connections of growing up, archival preservation, the ritual of correspondence, and the evolution of communication through technology.