The percentage of letters lost in the mail is relatively small, but still there are times one wishes for a Lost and Found Letters Department. Sometimes you either sense or know that something is missing. That promised invitation to a literary event that never arrives. The letter listed in Informed Delivery that does not materialize. Where do these letters go? Were they delivered by accident to the wrong house? Perhaps they fall on the ground and get swallowed up in the trash.
Technically, there is a Lost and Found Letters Department. It is called the Mail Recovery Center (MRC), formerly known as the Dead Letter Office, located in Atlanta, GA. The MRC handles non-deliverable mail that is determined to be of value. Gone are the days when postal workers pored over indecipherable handwriting in order to send letters to the correct address.
Recently I received three letters written to me by my friend Audrey over 17 years ago. A different kind of lost letters. Audrey and I were friends for many years before we lost touch. We initially met through a tennis class in the late 1960s. We were both new to the city, neither of us knew many people, and because we took the same bus home to the same neighborhood, living just blocks from one another, we struck up a friendship. Occasionally we practiced playing tennis together, but I can attest that neither of us showed particular skill or talent.
Audrey’s husband, Bill, was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam at the time. After he returned home, his duty of service completed, their small apartment was no longer big enough for their growing family, and they moved out of the city to the East Bay. By this time, I was married, and as our collective children were born, the nearly hour-long drive between our homes became more challenging. Slowly we drifted apart.
Years later, Audrey sent us a note and holiday card. I happily responded with news from our end. Sadly, the correspondence was short lived.
There are no fewer than five desks in our house, four of which belong to me. My dream of owning a giant rolltop desk simply did not work in our space, so I compensated by collecting desks. And I often work or write on the dining room table, not using these desks at all. My favorite is my great grandmother’s antique writing desk, which I inherited decades ago. The other that makes me happy is a Thomas Moser handcrafted desk with a drop-down leaf. The commonality of these two desks is that they both have drawers and cubbyholes, unlike modern desks. This is where I keep letters, photos, calendars, writing materials, stamps, and more – not in any particular order, mind, but randomly. It is like browsing the shelves of a disorganized library or bookstore. One never knows what might turn up. But none of these drawers or cubbies, or other drawers, baskets, and many-sized boxes in our house where I keep photos and letters, include letters from Audrey.
Bill is the hero of this story. He found letters that I had written to them, letters he had never seen, in a filing folder. Lost and found letters. He wrote to us to let us know that Audrey was very ill, in late stages of dementia. We talked on the phone, and then made the trip across the Bay in person. We were fortunate, thanks to Bill, to have the opportunity to visit with Audrey one last time.
A couple of years have now passed, and Bill made another discovery. “Just a quick note. I am going through Audrey’s papers and I came across these letters to you. I hope this will let you know that she was always thinking of you. Bill.” In the envelope, he enclosed three years of letters that Audrey had written – chatty, newsy letters that filled in a lot of blanks about those years of silence. Because they had not been mailed, there is some repetition, but each letter revealed something new about their lives.
“I have carried your Christmas card in my planner as a reminder to write you a proper letter,” she wrote in August 2004. She writes about Denise and Vicky, their two daughters, who we knew only as children– their careers and career changes, all spoken with pride about their accomplishments. Updates on their friends who were part of our mutual social lives. Audrey’s work in biotechnology, and Bill’s in electronics. Reflections on aging, on joining a church, health challenges. Her volunteer work at the Richmond Historical Museum was of particular interest to me. “There was interest in the Richmond Night Life during the 40s, blues clubs, etc. The Museum is small … but I enjoyed being there.”
“I think I’ll close this letter and promise myself to mail it tonight before another year has gone by.”
Losing a good friend is difficult. Dementia is cruel, robbing a person and their loved ones of their true presence. Thanks to Bill, the Audrey I knew came back to me through her lost and found letters.
Office of the Inspector General. Lost and Found, Jan. 11, 2016