Growing up, the mail seemed very important, almost as important as the newspaper. Every day someone would be asked, or ask "Did you get the mail?" and if the answer was in the negative, there would be an instant dash across dangerous 206 to our mailbox and a return dash to distribute what came.
I had a pen pal in France named Etienne who asked me to marry him in 7th grade. I had a best friend who moved back to Ohio after 7th grade and we wrote letters weekly. I wanted to get mail so I signed up for free things the government offered, pamphlets and samples-detergent, toothpaste, shampoo -- I loved being handed things with my name affixed. I did some shady things like sign on to a fossil club that sent me fossils every two weeks which I cheerfully examined and stuck under my bed until my mother received a phone call informing her that someone with my name owed them $5,000. "She's eight," my mother yelled into the phone and then she demanded to know what I was doing. "I want to get things," I said. I also attempted to sell greeting cards, which no one wanted.
But the letters, ah those letters; years and years of letters from lovers, my father, my friends, some teachers, fans when my books were published, husbands and even a few from my son before electronics swallowed us whole. Letters I cried over, smiled over, blushed at and occasionally burned. The handwriting so indicative of the writer's personality or mood, my father's unintelligible brilliance, my boyfriend's scrawl describing my beauty, my friend's loopy writing with the little hearts over the Is. Sweet letters from my non-letter writing present spouse when I was away, letters that took him a long time to write despite the content being a single paragraph. Letters of condolence after my sister was killed, letters from students telling me how much I had helped them get better at writing, letters saying yes and letters saying no.
The newspapers? Well, they were read avidly in my family, every morning with a return at night. My mother did the puzzle, my father did not but supplied all the hard words and in our local paper I pined, literally, over The Phantom, a comic featuring a loner, masked man who lived in the jungle. To say I was in love with The Phantom is weird, but there it is. I was a lonely third child living with preoccupied parents in the sticks. I had few friends and I was madly in love with a man whom the natives described as a ghost. But I also loved the newspaper. No, not the news -- Dear Abby, gossip, anything about travel and the obituaries. I was a fan of a well composed obit, reading it aloud to our cleaning lady while she ironed, stopping to emphasize tragedy or irony in the deceased person's life while my listener made appropriately sad noises. My newspaper love has a fetish side, which is the need for a virgin paper, unread, unwrinkled, untouched.
And then there were magazines -- Cosmo, Seventeen, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Self and Vogue and Gourmet and various others. As a teenager they supplied me with information -- lemon juice in my hair, cucumber masques, homemade make-up, henna, diets and exercise and how to please your man. They promised dinner parties and perfect weddings and grace and happiness. They lied but it didn't matter. My mother never wore makeup; she washed her hair with dishwashing soap. She was gorgeous and completely natural while I sent away for false eyelashes and slept in pin curls.
No Kindle or computer can take the place of a book. Screaming when the miners are dying in Germinal, nodding as D.H. Lawrence explain the endless loop of desire and rejection between men and women, running with Cathy into Heathcliffe's arms, surviving with Augie March and living in Dublin while I read Ulysses and rode to Trinity from Blackrock to Dublin, each landmark recorded in the book. I don't want to be one of those people who sticks their fingers in their ears, scrunches up their faces and says: "no, no, no, no!" But why can't we have all of them? (Yes, I know about the trees.)