by Beth Beall
Do you remember the first letter you ever got? The first “real” letter? A letter you could open up. Feel the paper in your hands. Fold it back up. Put it back in the envelope. And then—ah!—finding a special place to store your treasure. Perhaps you tucked your treasure under your pillow. Or in a dresser drawer. And then, when you wanted, you could reach for your treasure again. And pull it out of its envelope. And unfold it. And read the letter again. Fold it up once more. Return the letter to its envelope. And then tuck your treasure back in its special place.
The first letter I remember, aside from birthday cards, came to me when I was at sleep-away camp. It was a letter from my mom (signed from both “Mom and Dad,” of course!). There wasn’t anything special about the envelope: no monogram, no sticker, no preprinted return address. And the writing paper inside was just a sheet of lined notebook paper. But from the moment I saw my mom’s handwriting on the envelope, I was hooked. That letter was a treasure that made it all the way back home with me in my overstuffed suitcase.
I’m notorious among friends and family for throwing things out. Sometimes prematurely. Sometimes to my own dismay. But letters? I keep letters. I have the letters my grandmother wrote me over the course of fifteen years. I have the letters from my husband while he was stationed with the Army in Iraq. I have letters (well, notes) my dad, not an especially verbal guy, sent to me in college and over the years of my marriage. Emails? I delete those. Household stuff? I toss it out. But letters? I keep letters.
So I understand why Jeffry treasures his letter. Jeffry is four years old and has lived at Vida Joven for two years. His parents are no longer part of his life. Some of our wonderful Vida Joven donors sent Jeffry a letter about a month ago. There was nothing glitzy about this particular letter: it was written in crayon on a piece of orange construction paper. Yet Jeffry thought he’d won the lottery!
Jeffry opened his letter that day as if the paper might break. Such care! Asked me to read the letter for him. Asked me how to say the donors’ names. Asked me to read it again. Asked me again how to say his new friends’ names. Then he folded up that piece of construction paper with the precision of a soldier folding up the flag. During lunch that day, Jeffry kept the letter right beside his plate. Before starting his homework, Jeffry showed his letter to the household tutor. And before going to bed that night, Jeffry saved his letter in his cubby, where no one else could touch it.
Jeffry had won the lottery, hadn’t he? This sweet little guy knew that someone was thinking of him. That someone cared for him. That someone was carrying him in their heart, as surely as Jeffry carried the letter around in his hand.
Two days ago I was at the Vida Joven orphanage again. When Jeffry came home from school, he followed his routine: Jeffry said “Good afternoon” to everyone, and then changed into casual clothes. Next, he put his school uniform in the laundry basket. And then he sat down at a table to play a game before lunch. That’s when I saw it: in his right hand, Jeffry held the orange construction paper letter. “You have your letter, Jeffry,” I exclaimed. With the delight of a child showing off a new toy, Jeffry unfolded his letter and said, as if for the first time, “Read it to me!”
New toys will lose their shine. But letters? Jeffry keeps letters.