We are words.

I have recently found myself pondering posterity. It feels silly to be twenty-three and thinking about what I will leave behind, but it doesn’t stop me from wondering how, or if, I will be remembered when I am gone.

Maybe I will be like Emily Dickinson and my poetic genius will go undiscovered until my death, at which point I will become a celebrated writer — posthumously, of course, but the point is that I will live on through it.

That is the idealistic perspective. Most of the time, I consider the possibility that I will simply disappear in death with no one the wiser.

I want to leave my fingerprint on the world, even just a smudgy one.

This kind of thinking leads me into a box. It is an unusual box, constructed of soft wood and painted cream with sea foam edges, pink roses, and green vines. It has a lock and sits on a shelf surrounded by books of every size and subject. Inside is a jumble of envelopes, 15 years’ worth of correspondence from former classmates, acquaintances, and friends — those whom I’ve loved, lost, or sometimes forgotten. Some are bundled together and tied with yellow ribbon; all are worn around the edges from frequent re-reading.

There is something about a letter, handwritten and inky with misplaced blots and smears, that makes a telephone call or an email seem fleeting. When I think about what I would save if my house were on fire, I snatch my letter box and never look back. When I think about my legacy, I see stamped envelopes.

I would never have been a letter-writer without Meagan Swanson. She was my best friend for the first four years of elementary school, and when I moved to Fairfax after third grade, I assumed (with the innocence of an eight-year-old) that we would still see each other all the time. By the time I realized that was impossible, Meagan and I had begun writing back and forth, cards and letters and pictures, me from Rover Glen and she from Cooks Court.

We wrote until the end of high school, and by then I had amassed a small group of long-term pen pals. From Trevor, an elementary school friend who moved to England in seventh grade, I have six years worth of correspondence, overseas stamps and letters typed on American Embassy stationary. Lalita, a girl I knew briefly in middle school, sends me the occasional letter from Nevada, and Lorraine, a high school friend also removed to England, can claim the thick cards and letters written on looseleaf.

When I met my friend Annie in college, I fell back into the world of letter-writing. Over summers and breaks, and even now, we exchange letters in all shapes and forms: on stationary, construction paper, the margins of magazine articles; written in ink, crayon, glitter glue; my large and often messy hand and hers straight and solid. I have kept every letter she has ever written to me, and I know she has kept mine as well, for we will talk about them sometimes still and remember the things we wrote.

I am not destined to be a great writer, I think, but what of my letters? They tell stories, too, and may be the most worthy thing I could leave behind.

I wonder if my descendents will someday find my letter box in the recesses of an attic or cobwebby cellar and read the words of the people I’ve known. I wonder too if the descendents of those who have written to me will find my correspondence long after the ink has dried and think: Who was she? Why did she write in cursive here or forget to cross that T? Why did she use purple ink and misspell words and sign her name with such a flourish?

I begin to realize how letter writing can preserve the history and personality of the writer in ways in which a phone conversation (fled and vanished into air as soon as it is done) and email (tenuous in this world of computer memory and delete buttons) can never duplicate. It makes possible for common folk like me, who will never have the fame and fortune that makes one infamous through time, to be remembered, if only by a few.

For I exist in that paper, that ink, that seal. I am those words, and until they fade, I continue to breathe life.

Article © 2002 by Jenn Reeder