What to do with those old love letters?
Updated: Apr 15
We all have things that are hard to throw away. It’s old letters and pictures for me. I remember keeping a little love letter that a tall, dark haired, earnest boy had written me the summer we were training together in England. I stuffed it in my bedside table when I got home, and my serious high school boyfriend found it there a year or so later. Do you like this guy, he asked? Definitely not, I told him (which was true). So why did I keep his letter in the first place, and more curiously, why didn’t I throw the letter away even then?
What do we do with those things that made us feel important at one point in our lives, but will cause pain or confusion to our loved ones when our lives are over?
I’m not just talking about love letters, I’m talking about all sorts of personal, embarrassing or raw objects, things that could be hurtful or confounding if found by others. I recently pulled out an old photo album I kept from high school. I was half thinking I’d find some fun pictures to show my kids. What I saw were a lot of pictures of me and my friends at unchaperoned house parties or out in the woods, scenes littered with beer bottles and smirked faces, teenagers flipping the bird at the camera. The photos were terrible, grainy and out-of-focus; I wasn’t even in half of them. But I think I kept those pictures because they made me feel cool, important, included. Like the love letter, they validated my importance, my relevance in the teenage world I think we all create for ourselves. And it’s not that I want to erase this past. That I won't talk to my children about the things I did as a teenager, why some were very stupid (and some were very fun!), and how I grew from them. But there is a big difference between having these types of conversations and having my kids come across compromising pictures without me there to explain my thinking, to give the full story behind those images.
So let me make a recommendation: identify the things that keep you up at night or need an explanation. And do something about them.
What are the things, in the corners of your home, in the dark depths of your email, tucked inside a safe deposit box, or maybe in the hands of someone else, that make you nervous or could be easily misconstrued? Find them, collect them, ascertain what they are and what they mean to you.
Give them air. Decide if you should incorporate them into your life story. Engage them in a ceremony of sorts.
Many of these letters, pictures, and momentos may be a little unsavory but actually represent something quite important to you and your legacy. These are items from your life, after all. I recently found a huge pile of letters I had received over many decades from a dear childhood friend. The next time I saw her, I brought them all out, and we spent the afternoon reading and laughing over our childhood antics and the silly nicknames we called each other. But it was the pure quantity of letters we had written to each other, the number of times we had put pen to paper (then licked a stamp, addressed the letter, and actually put it in the mailbox), that felt meaningful. They represented a really true and lasting friendship we have had over many many years, and our dedication to staying in touch. It was a great moment.
Finally, don’t be afraid to let go of them.
The contents of those childhood letters were really not that interesting, and in some cases, a little embarrassing for both of us. There’s a lot about adolescence that is just plain ugly or regretful. When we were done reminiscing, my friend didn’t seem desperate to keep the letters, and I don’t blame her. I took them home and then texted her one last picture of the dorky, block letters she used to write my name in on the front of those folded, college-lined letters. And then I tossed the whole lot of them. What was important going forward was our enduring friendship, something that was represented in our continued relationship, not the physical letters. It was OK to let them go.
My mother had her own love letters. I have a memory of when she was in bed, very sick with cancer, and asked me and one of her closest friends to chuck some old love letters that were stuffed in her closet. “They’re so maudlin,” her friend remembered her telling us.* She told us she was worried that my father would find them and be hurt. Why, I wondered then and now, was she worried at all about something like this, during a time so obviously close to her death. Why spend mental energy on something she’s been meaning to throw away for years, instead of talking to us about what was important to keep, memories she wanted us to hold on to, not discard.
So don’t let those letters or photos that niggle at you hang around long enough to grow into bigger burdens, or worse, things your loved ones find when you die. At best, they add a lot of static to an already painful experience, to your enduring legacy. If you’ve followed my advice, you’ve spent time revisiting those letters, photos, momentos, and given them a little air time. Maybe you’ve created a new memory in the process, or shared a story and laugh with a friend, or refashioned the memory into something you actually want passed down. But don't be afraid to finally let these items go. You know you're important, and you know what's important about you. By clarifying and solidifying your story, you are doing a great service to your legacy, and to your loved ones. Don't forget: what's not left behind when you die is equally as important as what is.
* What’s strange about this memory is that I hadn’t remembered my mom’s close friend (also a dear friend of mine) being there. And I remember my mom being in anguish by the continued existence of these letters and the hurt they could cause my dad, while our friend remembers my mom rolling her eyes about them, her humorous side coming clearly through. I think this all says a lot about end-of-life exchanges and how memories are formed during these painful times. Another blog topic for another day!