A couple of weeks ago, my sister showed up at my door with a powder blue file cabinet. She was tearing through my mother’s basement in a fit of productivity, and my file cabinet was an easy mark for eviction.
I hadn’t added anything to this particular archive in at least 15 years. There were cuddly-looking birthday cards from 1989, and tons of notes my high school friends had written to me, many with faked-out headings like, “Rousseau: 1712-1778.” There were also treasures like random receipts, cards inscribed only with signatures, and a reprint of our high school yearbook’s index. (I did create that index, for what it’s worth.)
I just finished going through the piles definitively, deciding what to keep for a while longer and what to throw out, so here’s what you need to know if you want your card or epistle to be retained, roundabout 2030….
1. Die or completely lose touch with me. I’m not going to throw out personal notes from people now dead, or people who I’m not friends with anymore, and may never see again. My great-grandma wrote in a birthday card, “I can remember when I was ten. I was helping my mother a lot by then, as I was the oldest girl in our family. I’m enclosing $2.00, and I hope you can get [a] special treat for it.”
2. Draw or add a diagram. Maps of our neighborhood, including businesses now gone, drawn by high school friends. Caricatures of people. A seating chart of 3rd hour geography class, circa 1992. Hand-drawn balloons on birthday cards.
3. Include charming, telling details, like your sophomore year schedule, your grades in each class, or how good the Otis Spunkmeyer cookies were in the cafeteria that day.
4. Include literary references, philosophical references, historical references. My high school notes are just so full of these it amazes me. “I checked out some Shakespearean plays to read in the car.” She was serious. Or close your note with a gem like, “Tired of living by a set of Willie Loman-esque ideas.”
5. Express vulnerability. “By the way– I have 1st lunch– I take it you guys don’t.” Killer.
6. Describe fears that never came true. Example: despair over the impossibility of getting accepted to a competitive college that you ultimately graduated from. “An ACT of 33 or so is needed to get in…. I seem to consistently hit a solid 30 or 29.” Or, less compellingly, bemoan ever getting onto the yearbook staff: “My aspirations of being a writer are being crushed right before my eyes.” Oops. You did write for the yearbook.
7. References to music. Mix tape song lists. In particular, we used to splice together songs to make whole nonsensical paragraphs. Or, nearly as good: “I can get 105.9 in my room! If I point the antenna at this perfect angle and sit in just the right spot and don’t breathe, I can discern the music. This changes everything.” (105.9 was college-town radio then.)
8. Sentences that sound like real time: “I’m in the auditorium right now.”
9. Describing recent events, which people rarely have reason to do. “I remember buying the dye and the smell of your bathroom, but I have no recollection of the actual process.” Or minutes from the philosophy club meeting: “Philos club mtg last Sunday. Brought veggies, apples, and peanut butter…. We gave up on philosophy to play on the jungle gym. It soon began to rain…. J, K, and I went to Winstead’s til 5:30. Liz, T, and S said they were going to Maine. They actually went to the Nelson.”
10. Warn people about things that end up being a moot point. “If you ever, ever smoke again… I will never speak or associate with you again.” For the record, I do not smoke, except on Bastille Day.
11. Show a dead end. A letter from someone at church who thought I was troubled: “You might consider listing everyone in your family and going through all the emotions that come to mind.” Apparently someone (me?) told her I was troubled, but we never met and never talked. Also: a letter from a kid in North Carolina asking for details about how to join PAS Labs, the scientific research group I formed with my cousins in elementary school. Did I put an ad in a magazine somewhere? I have no idea. And I never responded.
12. Take me to task about something serious. I have kept three harshly worded letters from people whose feelings I hurt. The letter must not be deliberately cruel or ranty, just a solid indictment of how my behavior hurt you. I wouldn’t feel right throwing those away. I don’t feel guilty anymore, but it seems fair to honor your gutsiness with a spot in the archives.
13. Draw your handprint, or write your name clumsily. However, this probably only works if your hand is much smaller than a standard-sized greeting card.