After reading my friend Lauren’s lovely short essay, “Paper Trails,” about the archives left in her care by three deceased relatives, I thought about my own files of cards and letters from people, once dear, who are now dead to me, whether or not they are still living: Aunt Elsie; Ellen, my maternal grandmother; Nicole, a high school friend. I hold one side of what were once active correspondences; absent is the other side, that is, letters from me.
My letters might have ended up in the trash or in a never-opened file cabinet. They’re as gone to me as the person is. Concrete evidence of who I was and what I cared about in, say, 1985, when I still wrote devotedly to the Davenports, a Yorkshire family I stayed with for a month in 1983, belongs to the recipients.
Those long, newsy air letters could, also, have ended up in a daughter’s or son’s hands, as did the checks, diaries, and documents of Lauren’s parents and her old aunt. They could also have ended up in the hands of a stranger, who came across them at an estate sale and who knows neither me nor the Davenports nor any other person I wrote to.
If the stranger were an artist, she might have sewn them into a dress, as Jennifer Collier does with maps, pattern paper, book pages, and old letters and envelopes. In describing Collier’s constructions (which are not made to be worn), Craft magazine’s print version calls them “a great reminder of the way clothes get loaded down with meaning.” I look at this stitched paper dress, wonder about the origin of the letters, and think of the persons — strangers to me, intimates to the letters’ recipients — they stand in for.