This week I received an unexpected package in the mail. My sister sent me some old postcards that I had sent and received years ago when I was still in school and then later when I was recently married. We cherished mail in those days — as a kid, I didn’t receive many letters or postcards. Some of the postcards in this pile were sent to me by my Uncle Leo (a favorite bachelor uncle), my oldest sister when she was at her college job as a cook at a summer camp in Minnesota, and my brother when he was in army training before his stint in Vietnam. There are also a few postcards from three school friends — lines dropped about their summer vacations. I do not remember corresponding with my school friends, but here I am holding proof in my hands. Back then, we did not talk on the phone like everyone does now. Our phone was on a party line — we were wary of chatting with the risk of someone eavesdropping. And in our family, social talking on the phone was simply not done.
Several of the postcards were from people whose names are a complete blank for me now. Who were these people? Apparently large chunks of my past have simply disappeared — memories of people I used to know (well enough to send me a postcard!!) and things that happened to me. What does this say about life? I believe it shows how ephemeral our short lives are on this planet. Much of our lives will be forgotten while we are still alive. But certainly, in a generation or two, we will be mostly forgotten. For example, how often do I think about my grandparents (seldom) or my great-grandparents (never)? So what do we make of this gift of time on this Earth, knowing it is not meant to last? Maybe we shouldn’t fret so much about life’s challenges and uncertainties — take a long enough view and our worries will have faded regardless of the outcome.
One of the postcards was sent by me to my sister shortly after George and I arrived in Seattle to stay in November 1978. We moved in stages — I stayed to find a job and put down some roots while George returned to his job in the Midwest. By August of 1979 he had moved here, too, and we were settled in an apartment on Capitol Hill. Seattle was meant to be a temporary home for us, but here we still are nearly 40 years later! I was delighted to read my first impressions. (I called Puget Sound a “bay,” something the locals never do!): “Seattle is a very pretty city — very big, and much hillier than any city I had ever been in before. George and I have walked along the piers in the bay where there is a huge open market — fish, vegetables, fruit . . . On Wednesday we had lunch in the revolving restaurant atop the space needle. There are mountains, ships in the bay, and a huge city to look at.” A second postcard mentions our efforts to furnish our rented home: “This morning George and I are going shopping for a mattress and foundation. I just got a Sears card, so I may get a small b/w T.V., too. By next week we should be wallowing in comfort!” The postcards are artifacts from one of the defining adventures of our young lives.
The postcards reminded me how things have changed — we document so much of our daily lives these days with our phone cameras and almost instantaneous posts to our social media accounts or emails. The beginning lines of this poem say this so well:
“Before the age of doing
and photographing and filming
and texting what you did,
back when people simply did . . .”
— Wesley McNair, from “This Poem”
I am not very sentimental, and I don’t know whether I will save even a few of these postcards even longer. It makes me wonder how today’s deluge of documentation will be looked at forty years from now — will it be cherished like a few, hand-written postcards? Will the names to those faces have slipped from our memories? Will we be destined to be forgotten like our great-grandparents and forebears? What will become of all this digital information?