CALL IT IRISH RESERVE, or shyness. My mother and I, while close, had never enjoyed an ease of conversation in all the year I lived nearby in Washington. Our Sunday dinners were Pinteresque, filled with overlong pauses and ill-fitting remarks. Love and work and other emotionally charged subjects were, by tacit agreement, avoided. We usually talked about the vagaries of the weather, if we talked at all. After the worst of our silent Sundays, I fretted that Oscar Wilde would prove right: my tragedy would be to become as aloof as my mother. I was even secretly annoyed when people commented on our resemblance, as though a Dorian Gray transformation were already taking place.
A year ago I moved to Manhattan to take a job writing for a newsmagazine. My mother, a widow of 72, had little to say upon my departure except that she would have preferred if I were going to Atlanta. "Why Atlanta?" I asked, surprised. "No snow," she replied. I called her every few days but our phone conversations were, if possible, even more stilted.
Then the letters began to arrive, some short, some long, some on stationery, some on lined yellow sheets, almost always supplemented with a newspaper clipping or two. They were innocuous enough at first, filled with family milestones and Washington weather reports. But as the months wore on, they became more intimate. My mother's pen, it seemed, was far mightier than her phone. She was a closet Abigail Adams. It has often been noted that when the telephone superseded letters, an important and extremely delicate form of communication in American life was canceled; that people are able to say things in letters that they can not say in person or on the phone. But still I was caught by surprise at how mail-order emotions can alchemize a relationship.
Her mailings were relentless. She sent cookbooks ("365 Ways to Cook Hamburger"); fashion tips ("Hang your necklaces inside your blouse so your bra will catch them if the clasp breaks"); self-defense aids (a letter opener with detailed instructions on how to lunge for a rapist's jugular); health tips (newspaper articles recommending tea bags for sweaty feet and frequent churchgoing for lower blood pressure), and work advice ("Write more about herpes and syphilis. That's what people want to know, not budgets or foreign aid"). Before I left for a weekend to go to the Yale-Harvard football game in New Haven, she mailed $20 worth of quarters. "You will need these when you hit Connecticut," she wrote. "Every 10 feet is another toll booth."
When I was home for Christmas, I had a Scotch instead of my usual wine at our family party. My mother said nothing, but on my return to New York, there was a letter waiting reproachfully:
"I hope you will never take a drink when you are unhappy. It would break my heart to think you had become a jobless derelict, an easy prey for unscrupulous men, me dead, and a family who held you in contempt because you had tossed aside your beauty, youth and talent. Eat the right foods and remember, alcohol is fattening." Attached was a newspaper clip headlined: "Lettuce helps protect body from booze."
She even began sending advice on romance. A letter arrived cautioning against the married men ("long-tailed rats") who were presumably waiting to pounce the moment I let down my guard. "If you don't make the first date there will never be any involvement." She came to visit last winter, soon after I had broken up with a longtime boyfriend. For two days she watched me mope around my apartment and said not a word. After she returned to Washington, I received a 10-page letter filled with strategy and empathy:
"Put all his pictures in a place you won't see them, preferably the trash. The key now is indifference. Man's glory is in the chase, not the conquest. This has happened to every friend I have and to me. I was a senior at Holy Cross High School and he was graduated from Catholic University. A big rush and then nothing, but during the big rush he tried to get me to come across. Then I found out he really loved a beautiful older girl and thought he was engaged. She married someone else, he got another girl (who I am sure was a casual fling) in trouble and had to marry her. For months after being dumped I lived in hell. Every face on the street might be his. Every phone call might be him. Once I saw him with a girl on the boardwalk at Ocean City laughing and happy and I died.
"Years later he worked with my brother and used to ask about me all the time. He lost his leg and then died. I didn't wish it on him but he suffered, too."
For my 31st birthday, giving up her last shards of hope that I would marry, she sent a bank book with a modest nest egg she had saved for me: "I always felt that the girls in a family should get a little more than the boys even though all are equally loved," she wrote. "They need a little cushion to fall back on. Women can stand on the Empire State Building and scream to the heavens that they are equal to men and liberated but until they have the same anatomy, it's a lie. It's more of a man's world today than ever. Men can eat their cake in unlimited bakeries."
After a weekend trip home this spring, I received a note remarkable for its emotional abandon:
"All my friends thought you were pretty, sociable and had gotten taller. I felt very lonely after you left. I wish you were a little girl again. To me, you are still the beautiful apple-cheeked baby who stopped stroller traffic."
Our relationship in person has changed dramatically of late, thawed by the warmth of her letters. Our dinners have become chatty and filled with laughter. I glow when family friends remark on our resemblance. I have even become a convert to the post, anddsat down at my typewriter recently to reciprocate in kind. I wrote a letter to my mother telling her everything I had always wanted her to know but was afraid to say face-to-face. Soon an answer arrived:
"I felt very humble reading your letter and if I had died that minute there would be a certainty that my life had made a contribution to the universe. Parenthood is something that should be included in compulsory courses in school. Any moron can become a parent. Most of us are not that wise and producing a baby does not keep us from blundering along still making mistakes. Today, I like myself much better than when I was your age or a teenager. One of the few blessings of the sunset years. Take care of yourself. I treasure your letter. Love, Mother."