I can’t bring my coat. I can’t bring my purse. Before she buzzes me in, the polite but very serious student worker gives me a key and makes me put everything but a pad of paper and a pen into a locker.
Then, and only then, does she allow me to enter OSU’s rare book and manuscript archive.
I’ve taken a personal day to research Eva Prout Geiger, a native of Zanesville who was a child star in silent films. Prout Geiger went on, as an adult, to have her own traveling revue. She married a Zanesville boy who was also a musician; she was, coincidentally, one of the great loves of James Thurber’s life.
It bothers me that a woman with such talent, verve, and history is mostly remembered as the girl who got away from a famous man. I want to know more about her life.
I discovered Eva Prout Geiger as I read Harrison Kinney’s biography of James Thurber. After returning from Paris circa 1918, Kinney writes, Thurber was at loose ends, and needed to look for a job. He ordered a ream of nice paper emblazoned with his full name, James Grover Thurber. He rented a typewriter.
He was supposed to use these tools to send out compelling job search letters.
Instead, he spent most of his time writing funny letters to his buddy Elliott Nugent and love letters to Eva in Zanesville.
Another student worker brings a box to my table. He opens it up and fans out a series of files. I look through them carefully, and select the one with Mrs. Geiger’s name on the tab.
The student puts the rest of the material neatly away, and I sit down and open the file.
There, neatly stacked, are letters written on nice paper with the letterhead, James Grover Thurber. The first date is in May 1918.
These are the very letters Kinney referred to. Some are written in flowing ink; others are typed–I have to think on that typewriter Thurber rented for three months. I gingerly pick up a parchment page and begin to read, and Thurber’s expressions of fervent love, and his biting wit, draw me in. The letters span a period of twenty years. They include a couple of Thurber’s hand-drawn Christmas cards.
When I come up for air, two hours have passed.
Thank God Thurber didn’t have access to email. Imagine if he’d sent all those funny, yearning messages to Eva electronically. We’d never have read them, and a rich and vibrant voice, a compelling and sometimes sad story, would have been quenched.
Even today, in our electronic age, a handwritten letter is a gift.
When I come home for lunch, home to a yapping dog, to a son who–silent all morning–is anxious to talk, the mail is there. The sight of an envelope, addressed in some beloved script, waiting for me on the table changes the whole tenor of the day. I take the dog out, I catch up with young James, and then I bring my coffee to the table and open that envelope.
A letter from Kim, a note from Kay, wise words from witty Wendy, news from a niece, from a beloved sister-in-law, a scrawl from a busy nephew…I slow down and ‘listen’ to the words someone took time to entrust, in their own hand, to the page.
It’s a more intimate and revealing sharing, I think, in that it is more carefully chosen. The writer is taking pains to decide what should be included, and how to present that news. They reveal themselves on the page, and the effort this cost…for, as Kim says, it is not always easy to switch gears, slow down, and write a letter…is a measure of regard.
So the handwritten mail connects us immediately. And saved, it can be revisited long after the reason for the writing is history.
I have, for example, two letters my mother wrote in my ‘safe box.’ One was a thank you note she wrote to my brother Dennis’s best friend’s mother. The mom had given a birthday party for Den, and my mom wrote to thank her. That was in 1962; as a gesture of thanks, my mother included her very special fudge recipe. The receiver mom filed it in her cookbook.
Thirty years later, both moms had passed, and the older sister of Dennis’s friend found the letter as she sorted her mom’s cookbooks, and she put it in an envelope and sent it to me. I opened it one busy day when I was running from class to job, checking on kid and babysitter mid-day, and I heard the voice of my mother. I was seven when she wrote that note; when I read it, I was the age she was when she authored it.
And last Fall, I visited my cousin Barb, who gave me a copy of a letter Mom wrote her in 1978…a letter in which Mom bemoans the clutter caused by my upcoming nuptials, refers to my father as “The Boss” (many would differ on who played that role in their relationship), and spins a funny story about seeing Bob Hope with my youngest brother, Sean. Again–that voice…and a whole different appreciation at a whole different time in my life.
What a gift.
So while I still tap away on my keyboard, sending e-notes to dear ones, every once in a while, I sit down and write. The activity slows me down; the activity makes me mindful of how dear the recipient is to me.
There is always much to say; some of it needs to be said quickly, sent quickly, and quickly digested. Some thoughts and bits of news, though, should be worked through, filtered, and then committed to paper, perhaps written with a favorite gel pen on crisp parchment paper; sealed into an envelope; and committed to the US Postal Service.
Those words won’t be so quickly digested; they will be read carefully and maybe wrestled with; they will be revisited. They may be saved and savored. Years from the birth of that letter, the same hands may pick it up and hear a whole different message. The children of the receiver may learn, a long time hence, more about that sender.
Our letters may never be the carefully crafted works of art that Thurber’s love notes to Eva were; they may be full of mundane details about our lovely, ordinary lives. But our letters, too, are gifts to the future, to the ones who come after us who might otherwise never hear our voices. So I keep sending those emails; I keep posting on FaceBook; but every once in a while, I pick up a pen and write a letter.