In the early spring of 2007, my grandmother passed away, leaving our family with a whole treasure trove of letters. My grandmother was a notorious packrat, but I’m not sure anyone expexcted that she would keep every letter her five children had written to her during their formative late teens and early twenties. That same year, in those same years myself, I took my first field job and, inspired partly by my grandmother’s legacy and partly being seemingly endless nasty weather, I began to write home to my parents. It wasn’t until just this last year that I realized that I was the third documented generation to pick up the pen and paper to write home.
In 1938, my grandfather was stationed in remote Alaska tending salmon traps long before the days if statehood banned such practices. At the time, he was writing home to his family detailing his various adventures in the last frontier. Neary 35 years later his youngest son, my father, visited many of those same fishing ports and wrote it all home to his parents. Thirty years later, my letters home have followed familiar mail routes from remote and distant places to reach the hands of my loved ones.
Just before leaving for Peace Corps, I learned that wasn’t just one side of my family that wrote home, but both. Reading through my mother’s letters to her own mother detailing my and my sister’s childhood, I was touched by just how much close you can grow to someone simply by hearing their voice through their writing. Both my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother died before I was ever old enough to have a significant relationship with them. Hearing their voices through their writing as they detailed their adventures, their great loves, and their great sorrows in life to those they loved gave me that special opportunity to meet them, to know them, and to remember them long after their deaths. Who would have thought that my grandfather was a total sap or that my grandmther had a powerful weakness for rocky road ice cream?
You may be wondering what all this has to do with Peace Corps. In some Peace Corps countries volunteers have regular access to the internet, making hand written and snail mailed letters a thing of Peace Corps past. Even here in Zambia, some volunteers have regular cell phone service and data plans allowing them to stay just a few keystrokes away from family and friends in America. But there is something special about serving in one of the most remote areas in one of Peace Corps most “off-the-grid” countries. Here the mail still matters, and on the bi-monthly occasions when I have access to the nearest post office, finding that the post master has a letter or package waiting for me inspires feelings of joy, love, and excitement I’ve scarcely felt since I was an 8-year-old on Christmas Eve. Letters from home are beloved voices made real in the silence of my hut when the darkness of the African night closes in on my loneliness. They are evidence of love that you can hold in your hands and enjoy over and over. They are the mundane and delightful details of life at home, letting me live vicariously through those I’ve left behind and helping me to feel like I’m not missing everything to be here.
Skype and phone calls are special and wonderful in their own way, but they rarely leave me satisfied the way a letter does. When the camera flicks off after a Skype call, or the lines goes dead after a long phone call, I always feel that some part of me is now missing and wishing that it was back at home. I wonder sometimes if the human heart was meant for all this technology we have now (she said, typing away on a tablet and bluetooth keyboard). How do we rectify the feelings of having someone almost there with us, digitally represented but physically felt and loved, only to be taken away in the blink of a power outage or the last kwacha in our talk time running out? Our hearts want to be with the people we love and to tease ourselves with having someone almost there, but not quite…it leaves me longing each and every time. A letter, though, is a different animal. It gives you something to read over and over, to stimulate the imagination as you conjure up the writer’s voice, and to see their effort and love put in to each pen stroke and creased page. In packages, letters compliment a whole host of special things that remind you of home, that remind you of the love another holds for you, and to sometimes say the things that you can’t say out loud. In my family, letters have been the bearers of bad news, the confessionals, celebratory announcements, and reminders of affection across long distances and separations. Here in Peace Corps, letters from home not only keep my morale high and inner fire burning, but they also serve as a way to document and remember my time here. Each letter I write home will be a little snapshot of how I felt, what I saw, and how it changed me. Each letter I receive is a similar piece of time from home, helping me not to be as lost and distant when someday I return to the States.
So why write? Because there’s something intangibly essential and perfect about the written letter. People occasionally ask me how they can support me during my Peace Corps service, and besides the hot sauce and other little treats from home (and bseriously, the hot sauce), I also reply, “Just send me letters. Write about anything, just write.” So, if you’re wondering how you at home can support those of us serving overseas, dig out a pen and paper and lick a couple of stamps. Dear postman, please bring me a letter.