This will no doubt seem quaint to those who’ve never known anything but Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and whatever else has come down the pike since Facebook — which my kids inform me is just for “old” people now.
I’m of the last generation for whom letter writing was once the principal method of keeping up with distant friends. That, or expensive long-distance phone calls.
My project started with four stuffed bankers’ boxes.
“First, I’ll decrease by half, to two boxes,” I thought. “That’ll jumpstart things. Since I’ve been totally lazy about culling, it shouldn’t take long.”
There was definitely more than one excavation layer. So I gathered Post-its and fresh rubber bands.
My first order of business was to roughly separate everything by either sender, or time frame, 2-3 years in my case. Most letters were still in their envelopes, so the postmarks helped date them. Some were already bundled by sender, so I left those alone.
Sure enough, it took longer than planned. However it made the next step a lot easier: deciding which to toss, keep temporarily, or in the case of a particular old boyfriend, burn. (I couldn’t resist opening those up immediately and yikes! They embarrassed even me. If you don’t have a fire pit, careful outdoor use of a wide oil pan will suffice.)
After this initial sort, I started with the most recently dated bundles and worked backwards. I figured there’d be less brain strain, and I was right. Also, don’t try to open and read each and every letter yet. It might seem counterintuitive, but you’ll save time and mental energy if you wait.
I’m compulsive, so I had to at least glance inside each letter or card. Some were easy to peruse and pitch immediately:
Birthday or holiday cards, which I admit I’ve saved too many of. I keep the most recent year’s Christmas cards in a bundle since we still keep some friendships alive with that annual tradition. If you do likewise, you won’t have to consult or update your prehistoric address book if you keep scissors and a tape dispenser where you open mail. When a card arrives, cut off the return address, tape it to the backside, and toss the envelope.
Postcards of other people’s travels (usually.)
Pictures of other peoples’ kids. It’s not your job to document everyone’s growth.
Wedding congratulations. Baby’s arrival congratulations. Geesh! The kids are having their own kids now and the marriage is almost 40 years old. Smile and toss.
Letters from people you hardly remember.
Letters from acquaintances who’ve died. Take a deep breath, smile, say goodbye one last time, and toss. Unless ...
And here come the caveats, so take an empty bankers box and set it up with some hanging files. I’m guessing you won’t need to buy any, because anyone who saves mountains of letters is the kind of person who also has file folders; it goes with the territory. A set of alphabetized labels, like those “A-B”, “C-D” … “WXYZ” sets is handy also.
For the next step in the process, or Part B of the perusal, temporarily file by name:
Letters you can’t deal with yet. Maybe they’re too emotional. I have a ton of letters from my mother, and plan to keep some, but I need more time to decide.
Letters you want to read again, then probably toss.
Letters you want to read again, and maybe keep. This would include letters from friends who write so well, or so evocatively that they’re worth keeping on their own merit.
Letters that the senders might enjoy reading again. I have a girlfriend who wrote colorfully about her life overseas, playing in the Hong Kong Symphony. I also have letters going back several decades from a fifth-grade pal. I’m sure they’ll both enjoy a blast from the past, as I have. It’s worth a couple bucks postage to surprise them.
Another friend wrote me letters describing a sabbatical year in the Netherlands. Sadly, her house burned down since then, destroying any records she might have had, so I’m guessing she’ll appreciate receiving this small “journal” back from me.
Letters from a handful of friends I’ve lost contact with, but would love to touch base with again. It’s worth a few minutes online to check. So set them aside.
And I’ve saved a small bundle of cards that are just too cool or nutty to part with yet. That’s self-permitted.
But remember, unless you want to read again or share the letters, you’re just leaving it all for someone else to deal with. Actually, for some people, “Let someone else deal with it” is the perfect solution. I’m not judging, but really, is that nice?
On another note, if the letters in your possession tell a story with regional interest, or give a glimpse into daily life — the past or the present — they might have historical value. Dulce Kersting-Lark of the Latah County Historical Society says, “I cringe to think of all the wonderful primary sources that have been tossed out over time because a person didn’t think the contents were historic.” So contact your local historical society with any questions.
I can proudly report that I’ve accomplished my first goal! The volume is down by more than one half, and well organized for the final push. I have 1 1/2 bankers boxes of letters alphabetized by sender and a few bundles ready to mail.
I have some observations and insights about the near extinction of the handwritten letter, and what it means to still be able to read cursive, but I’ll save them for when I’ve finished the project.
In addition, my large recycling bin is 3/5 full. I’m obsessed with knowing how many pounds of my past I’m offloading, so I’ll weigh and crow about that later, too.
Jeanne Leffingwell would like to remind people that while letters can be recycled, photographic prints must unfortunately go into the trash.