gifts of the pen

Many years ago, I worked at the New York Public Library as a Planned Giving Officer. My job was to work closely with older patrons and speak with them about how they planned to distribute their estate upon death. Would they consider bequeathing all or part of it to the future of the Library? Every morning on the subway, my boss would read the obituary section of the Times, and if he walked in particularly perky we knew a big donor had died. We would spend the morning reflecting on memories of the person, laughing and sharing stories, but would also be eager to get their Will and see what the Library had gained with their demise. It was a fascinating and slightly morbid job.

The greatest upside of the job, was building relationships with elder New Yorkers and creating wonderful behind the scenes tours of collections ranging from the Lincoln Center Library’s dance video collection to tours of former library caretaker living quarters, tucked into 4th floor attics. On these tours, ladies from 65 to 80 would take my arm and, with a twinkle in their eye, tell me about the New York they lived “when I was your age … oh, how I wish I’d known what I know now … I would’ve taken it all.” For me, I couldn’t imagine how they could’ve have taken more. These were women who had thrived, usually happily single, in the greatest city on earth, in a time when the world was filled with $5 off-broadway shows and Coney Island freak shows and white gloves with pillbox hats, dancing every night of the week, and rooms filled with the sound of electric typewriters creating a new world that we can only romanticize. It was magical.

The most magical memory, however, came on a Spring day when we went to visit the home of one of our favorite patrons. She attended almost every event since I had joined the library, but I had not seen her for a couple months. While she was a delight to interact with, she didn’t care for phone calls- even asking that we only sent correspondence to her. We abided her wishes and hoped we’d see her in Spring- once the winter’s cold lifted and events once more became well attended. However, when the season changed only a letter regarding her Will probate turned up- all of her belonging were to be given to the library.

To get to her 5th floor post-War apartment building in Riverdale, we took the 1 to the end of the line and walked through a neighborhood none of us had previously visited. The building super took us to her apartment and we entered a perfect time capsule. She’d lived alone in a pristine, one-bedroom, one-bath spot that she’d bought, on an English teacher’s salary, 50 years before. The carpet was a deep rusty red, windows were large and looked out onto trees. The kitchen had very little in terms of dry goods or cooking implements. A four piece dish set that looked to have been bought in celebration of owning her own place fifty years before sat in a cabinet. There was a simple cast iron skillet and a couple pots on the stove. And there were books, so many books. Books filled the remaining kitchen cabinets. And her living room shelves- Tall bookcases, stacked two deep, some books had two copies- a lovingly worn, well read copy, next to a pristine first edition- wrapped in archival plastic. In one corner of her living room, there was a comfortable, but not too comfortable, wingback chair with a wool blanket neatly folded over the left arm and a small table to the right topped with a good light that had an easy pull switch. Her bedroom held a perfectly made twin bed and a stunning, mid-Century writing table with a manual typewriter centered just so and a cane back chair. Also, another good lamp, more book cases, a single four drawer dresser and 2 file cabinets.

We quickly knew we had been bequeathed a treasure trove. The next week, we returned with two collections librarians and a mini-van. After looking through the small apartment for 10 minutes, one of the librarians gleefully announced, “We are going to need a bigger truck!” As it goes, people love donating their well-loved collections to the NYPL and while the books are valuable to their owners, they are rarely valuable to the library. This collection, however, was not only impressive in its size and quality, but also uniqueness. We found things like first editions signed by Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye and lesser known titles and cookbooks signed by Julia Childs, but clearly never cooked from, a shame but also a gift. Stashed on the top shelf of her entry closet, was a stack of hundred year old coffee table art books filled with Kama Sutra paintings. Like the cookbooks, they appeared to, sadly, not have been referenced much, but they existed and would reside at the main New York Public Library.

But all of that glory aside, what I wanted to know was, “What was in the file cabinets?” I opened the first drawer and my heart skipped. There were hundreds, likely thousands, of letters corresponding to dates neatly printed on the front of the drawers.

While collections librarians sorted through books, deciding what they would keep and what would be offered up for sale to The Strand bookstore, I sat at her little writing table and I read letters, so many letters. Each a story shared, each representing a mailbox opened and a letter excitedly read to learn the response to a question or the extension of a story started in a previous letter. Her sister had been a librarian who lived in central Harlem and they wrote letters every week, sometimes daily and many were posted with “morning” and “afternoon” mail service- meaning one would write before work and the other would reply after work. Often they would write to agree to meet for lunch and exchange books or finalize plans to catch an off-Broadway play together. The letters spanned decades. The letters were filled with heated debates about books, frustrations about students, or conversations about City politics- the subway or parks. But really, they were heartbeats of two sisters who clearly loved each other as deeply as they loved their City.

Letter writing is a life of loving shared in the simplest way.

We are filled with Facebook and texts and emails now. I miss the feel of a letter and, while I’ve let dozens of letters go, I am so glad I have lugged around a box of treasured letters that span the decade of my twenties. They are a permanence of the impermanence of shared memory.

Writing is a magical practice and pen to ink is a gift of the heart that matches no other. Letters tip into the heart of the receiver- you’ve taken time to sit down and construct a gift of your thoughts.

Do this for me, for yourself, for someone you love. This week, take 15 minutes and write a letter. It will be found in 5, 10, 20 years and freshly cherished.

image from The Australian

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