I went to lunch last week with two close high school friends with whom I hadn't spoken in twenty years. Inconceivable, wasn't it, that we'd go from being nearly inseparable, to sending Christmas cards, to... nothing?
Yet over our salads and sandwiches, the years melted away. One moment we were middle-aged near-strangers, and the next, we had managed to conjure up some semblance of what is was to be fifteen.
As we reminisced about our collective pasts and caught up with our current lives, my friend Sue reached for her purse.
"I put these aside to bring to our last class reunion, but I never made it there," she said. "So I figured I'd bring them along today." She pulled out a plastic baggie stuffed with paper and handed it to me.
I opened the baggie and began unfolding one of the pages. "Dear Susie Baby," it began. The writing, in faded purple ink, seemed familiar. I squinted at the page and glanced up at her.
"These are all the notes you wrote me in high school. Most of them during biology class in sophomore year," she said. "I saved them all, in a cookie jar."
She shrugged and smiled. "Every time I moved, I'd find them and think about tossing them, but I never did. I don't know why. But they're a hoot. You should take them home and read them."
And so I did.
I'd like to say she saved them for thirty-five years because I was a teenage prodigy and the words I wrote as a high school sophomore were already Pulitzer-worthy. They were, indeed, sometimes funny and heart-warming.
But what they contained wasn't some award-winning writing. What was meaningful about these words, scrawled during a single hour each day during a single school year, was that they provided a written snapshot: a clear image of one short but meaningful time in each of our lives.
What I read reminded me about events I'd fully forgotten. About our favorite catchphrases and favorite people. About the person my friend was at fifteen, and the person I was then, too.
My last words were written in June 1977. "Well, Big Baby, this is the last note I will ever write to you in biology class... I hope you have kept all my notes this year. It's a valuable collection!"
None of my high school scribblings would net a dime on Pawn Stars. But valuable? Ah, such a subjective term when it comes to pieces of our past.
Stashed away in my basement, amidst holiday decorations and cartons of books, are cardboard boxes filled with mementos. Among these are countless handwritten memories: postmarked envelopes with letters written in a long-gone aunt's cursive script. Handmade birthday cards from my sons, in a child's clumsy printing. And somewhere, for certain, contraband notes from old friends written during school days when we knew friendships to be far more important than any teacher's lectures.
Will today's generation still have the ability to capture this magic of their past, thirty or more years from now? Will they be able to scroll through old text messages and emails and Facebook posts from long-lost friends or deceased loved ones? If so, will those electronic words in some computer-generated sans-serif font still hold the same meaning?
I hope so.
The passing of years turns our memories into muddied images. But what remains behind in paper and ink enlightens the past in vivid detail, often more so than a photograph. It recaptures meaningful moments from the writer's point of view. It reminds us of who and what was once important to us, and often explains why we are whom we are today.
I might not still be that fifteen-year-old telling bad jokes, practicing even worse Spanish skills and plotting big plans for the weekend.
But thanks to my words, preserved by a friend for thirty-five years, I had one hell of a time getting reacquainted with her.
Do you still believe in paper and ink? When's the last time you sent snail mail? Who were you at fifteen?