In February, my mailbox delighted me with a welcome “mishap.” Mixed in with the bills and junk mail was a letter addressed to me in elegant cursive. It looked surprisingly like my father’s hand, stylish and disciplined in the manner taught to prewar, British boarding school pupils as a necessary skill for gentlemen. The postage stamps on the envelope were from India, where he lived. But the letter couldn’t be from him; my dad had died many years ago.
The envelope, tattered at the edges, was encased in a plastic sleeve bearing a message from “Your Postmaster” telling me that the U.S. Postal Service handles 177 billion pieces of mail each year and that “an occasional mishap will occur.” The letter within, dated Oct. 10, 2001, was handwritten on my father’s personal stationery. Across the top it said, “In haste,” which suggested a quick note of some urgency — ironic for a letter delivered 14 years later. I flipped the note over and it was signed, “Love from us both — Daddy.” My eyes welled, and I felt a shiver course through me.
With an obvious reference to Sept. 11, 2001, my father wrote:
“We are of course deeply concerned at what is going on in the world. We can only pray that sense all round will prevail to avoid a global catastrophe. . . . Love to the kids & to you both. We pray for you and indeed for the whole world which seems to have gone mad .”
To the U.S. Postal Service, I simply want to say thank you for delivering this letter to me. Fourteen years is a long time to wait for a letter, but rarely has one been more welcome. The expression of concern in the letter is sadly still relevant today. But the physical letter itself was a real joy. Like a good book, a personal handwritten letter begs to be saved, waiting patiently to be browsed again as if being read for the first time, each time.
A tide of memories came flooding back. As a foreign student studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1980s, I waited for the letters from my father that arrived each month with news from home. E-mail was still a thing of the future, and international phone calls were prohibitively expensive. A round-trip communication by post took roughly three weeks. The silence in between was filled with rereadings of the last letter.
After I began working in New York, I called my parents every Sunday morning. But the letters from my father continued to arrive each month, like a good habit. They were a commentary of life and views from the other side of the world, from the mundane goings-on at his farm — crop rotations, bovine births and labor shenanigans — to considered opinions on world affairs; my father was an avid listener of the BBC and Voice of America on his shortwave radio. The letters gave me a physical connection to him, one that was richly illustrated in my reading by a visualization of the characters and events described in that reassuringly familiar handwriting.
Years later, the letters continued, but a grandfather now addressed them to his young grandson. His words now tied together three generations. My son still has his collection of letters telling of flying sorties with the Royal Indian Air Force over Burma during World War II and tracking tigers in the jungles of India. And this piece of advice for a young lad considering an exciting career:
“The armed services are not meant to be taken up for adventure. It is Duty, for which we are trained very carefully. We go out and perform our duty as others do in other fields. But of course the Services has its share of danger which is part of its life.”
When my son was in high school, the letters became less frequent and the writing developed wrinkles, but, as he would tell me, Grandpop had not lost his flair for a good story. Those letters are his book of memories for a lifetime.
My father saved my son’s letters, too. He shared them proudly with his friends and surely embellished them, as only a grandfather knows how.
My son was barely 10 when I watched the second plane crash into the Twin Towers from my office in lower Manhattan, one month before my father sent the prayers and loving words that would reach me 14 years later. An orange ball of flames exploded from the south tower on a crisp blue fall morning, and it did seem like the whole world had gone mad. But if my father could write to us today, I know that his words would be full of the optimism and hope that were the hallmark of his generation. Now I can only answer him — in haste and for all time — by doing what I can to carry this faith along.