Home Forums Challenges Sentimental Clutter Returning old letters

This topic contains 31 replies, has 22 voices, and was last updated by  Netleigh 6 years, 6 months ago.

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  • #160039

    Ella
    Member

    Here’s a question for those of you who are sorting through old letters, or who have already done so. I would love to hear your feelings and advice on this question:

    Have you ever returned old letters to the sender? Or, has anyone ever returned your letters to you?

    I’m on the brink of going through a massive quantity of old letters. In particular, I have hundreds of cards and letters from my ex-best female friend. It so happens that friendships you think are forever, can fade away and die. After some 30 years we drifted irreversibly apart. I haven’t started going through her letters yet, but as I do, I know I won’t want to keep them all. I’m wondering if I should send them back to her? It doesn’t seem right to throw them out. I should add that I can’t contact her and ask if she would want them. Our friendship ended 9 years ago, and even though I’ve tried to resurrect it a few times, she doesn’t reply. I know where she lives, and I could easily box them up and ship them. Should I or shouldn’t I? I’m willing to ponder your different opinions, since I won’t be reaching the point of decision and action for quite a while.

    I also wanted to add that after my best male friend died (1991) and after my mother died (1998), I discovered that they had both saved every single letter I sent them. I was very glad to have those letters back because re-reading them helped to reconnect me with the dearest two people of my life. And most especially, I reconnected with myself. The letters are so much better than journals because they aren’t laden with all the embarrassing whiny minutiae I used to fill journal pages with. In my letters, I was writing as my “better self.”

    So that’s why I’m thinking about returning these 30 years’ worth of letters to my old friend. They are very much a chronicle of the times and a personal journal of her life. She was a wonderful writer. What are your thoughts…?

  • #219033

    J.B.C.
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Wow, Ella, you really struck a nerve for me. I won’t drone on like I usually do, but I was just on the edge of beginning a thread about this very thing. An ex- best friend from childhood, long, sad story, so maybe I will start a thread sometime… Anyway, if you genuinely feel that they may have more interest in the letters than yourself then by all means send them back, but if bridges are burned or you are now ancient history to them, I’d vote to do with them what you will.
    Incidently, my husband went on an extended religious mission in Chile before we met and had journals filled with his experiences, and a couple hundred letters from family and friends. He gave them to me to scan and toss. I was on a major unclutter binge last summer, and he was okay to sacrifice them for my sanity.
    I read them all and it was an incredible insight for me into who he was and the many people he knew (he still runs into a good deal of them). I was incredulous when he said he would never read them again, he wanted to keep it for the kids, someday to print and compile. He said he appreciated all of their love and encouragment, but felt they had served their purpose in the moment. He did save a stack of ragged calendars where he had planned out his day, a small box of souvenirs, another small box of photos, and his actual journals. So something that I was sure he had valued (that I personally valued)meant very little to him in the present day

  • #219035

    Anonymous

    Returning old letters

    I have a small stack of letters that I had written to my aunt when I went away to college in the 1970’s. They were useful for a timeline I wanted to construct for my genealogy records.

    It was fun that I had some of her letters during the same time period and could almost picture us in a conversation. Her comments about my nieces and nephews as toddlers are fun to share with the same people who now have toddlers of their own!

    Ella, I would say that your former friend does not need the letters back, and sending them in a big box might send the wrong message. If I was the one who received it I might think that the former friend was insulting me by purging all evidence of the friendship. For that matter, how would she even know that you still have the letters at all? If she hasn’t contacted you to ask you about them in 9 years, she does not really want them. If you really want to send them to her, maybe include a note that says that you thought she might enjoy re-reading them “as you did”. Maybe even ask if she has any of yours that she might be able to part with. That gives the letters a different kind of value and might help heal/close some old wounds.

  • #219037

    bandicoot
    Member

    Returning old letters

    i used to be a prolific letter writer and i have been amazed at the number of people who have kept my letters and then years later, offered them back to me.
    i accepted the first lot and re-read my entire teen years.
    it was fun, i guess, but that was enough for me. i recycled the paper.
    personally, i don’t want to wallow about in the past…i am interested in what is happening right now.
    if others wish to hang onto my letters, that is fine with me.
    i didn’t send them with the notion of getting them back twenty or thirty or more years later.
    and i have only kept a handful of extraordinary letters sent to me.

    ella….about your friend’s letters….i think i would simply get rid of them.
    it doesn’t feel as though they are serving you in any way.
    your quondam friend sent them to you freely. she isn’t expecting them back.

  • #219040

    Mimi
    Member

    Returning old letters

    i had an interesting discussion about this a few days ago. a friend read a biographie of an philisopher (søren kierkegaard)and quoted a part of a letter that kierkegaard sent to his ex-finacée. kierkegaard´s letter contained all the letter of his ex, and he used them as wrapping papers for a present. what a mean affront! my friend even said that he didn´t know that kierkegaard was “diabolic”. 🙂
    so, depending on the context, i would be very careful with sending letters back. if it´s like banicoot´s letters that she got from her friends, i think it´s a nice idea to offer them. as you are not friends anymore, it could be understood as: here are the letters i got from you. i don´t want them anymore, read them yourself… kind of that…
    i´d just recycle them. you don´t need them anymore. you friend does not reply to you and so explains that she doesn´t want any contact… i´d respect her wish and leave her alone.

  • #219042

    Returning old letters

    Ella: I agree with Bandicoot & Mimi. If the friendship ended on a sour note, returning the letters could be interpreted as a hostile act rather than the courtesy you intend. And if she isn’t communicating, you won’t have a chance to explain properly.

  • #219046

    rutheverhart
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Ella, there does seem to be a concurrence that returning the letters could be problematic. Knowing that you feel things deeply, I have a suggestion. What if you contact your friend with a brief, friendly note that lets her know you have the letters, enjoyed reading them one last time, and wondered if she would like them as a life chronicle. Otherwise, you will toss them. Then give her a “reply by” date. If she doesn’t reply, I think you can let them go with a clear mind. Time to move on!

  • #219049

    irishbell
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Going on the assumption that she will actually read the first letter, I think Ruth’s idea is spot on.

  • #219060

    JayEff
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Sending the letters back would be insulting, in my opinion.

    If you really think that she would like to have these letters, SCAN them, and send/email her the electronic copy. That way, she knows that you still have a copy of the letters that you chose to keep for all these years.

  • #219062

    sleepykitten
    Member

    Returning old letters

    I like @JayEff‘s idea, although it is a lot of work.

    Scan them and/or xerox them and explain in a cover letter to your friend why you thought she might want a copy of the letters. Then I would keep the originals for a couple months – just in case she writes back and says “OMG, I can’t believe you still have those, let’s be friends again!” But if you never hear from her, you can go ahead and get rid of them later and she won’t even know that you don’t have a copy, still.

  • #219065

    lucy1965
    Member

    Returning old letters

    If you know where she lives, is the converse true? If she wanted to be in touch with you, could she do so easily? If you’ve tried to resume the friendship and she’s not replied, or contacted you on her own, she’s not interested in hearing from you any more.

    Someone who knew we grew up together — but didn’t know our friendship had ended — sent me a newspaper clipping with a photo of my former best friend’s father’s elementary school class. I knew that she didn’t have much in the way of physical artifacts of her father’s life; I also didn’t want the drama that would have immediately kicked off if she received something in the mail with a postmark from my city. Things were further complicated by her having moved twice since our friendship ended, and I didn’t have her current address. I wound up forwarding it through a mutual friend.

    Ella, I’m not sure I’m actually being helpful, here. I can tell you that when my friendship ended, I made it very clear that I would not welcome further contact; I would view the return of my letters as lack of respect for my stated boundaries and dealing with the memories of how horribly things ended between us would hurt me for days. If there’s a chance of that, let things rest.

  • #219069

    Swede
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Guys… it’s 30 yrs worth of letters! Scan all of it?? Noooo… I had 20 yrs of letters from my friend and it would have taken AGES to scan/xerox all of them. Letters are not always the size of an A4 so it would most likely would have to be scanned separately. Huge time waster!

    I’m with Ruth on this one. Send the ex friend a note! It can not be misunderstood or be considered rude and it has the option of her not replying in case she choses so.

    I would be sort of offended if someone sent me a bunch of my letters out of the blue but I could possibly appreciate a note offering it (and I would politely decline). I know my friend kept all of my letters but I am more fond of the letters she sent to me than the ones I sent to her! I recently purged about 90% of the letters she sent me (again… 20 yrs worth!! It’s was a LOT.) and only kept the sentimental/important ones. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if I told her. 🙂

    Good luck Ella and let us know what you decided!

  • #219071

    chacha1
    Member

    Returning old letters

    I like Ruth’s suggestion too. High courtesy, low commitment, and whether the answer is “yes please send them thanks that’s all” or [crickets chirping] then the next course of action is clear.

  • #219090

    sleepykitten
    Member

    Returning old letters

    @Swede – OK, yeah, I guess scanning would be too much work. I forgot that it was 30 years worth. Never mind.

  • #219101

    Ella
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Thank you all, for your thoughtful responses. I’m still undecided, but I will mull over your ideas. It’s possible that I’ll find the answer in her letters. I seem to remember that at some point we talked about saving our letters, as being closest friends we had both confided things that no one else was privy to. She is fond of memoirs, the diaries of Anais Nin, and the letters of Jane Austen. Both of us have edited volumes of letters by British literary figures. My inclination is not to discard them, and they are too numerous, long, and varied in format to be anything but a scanning nightmare. But I do not want to keep them all (and I am not her Boswell!).

    If anyone should decide their final resting place, I think it should be their author.
    But as I say, I’m undecided and it will be some time before I get to that point. In any case, I would not just dump them on her without a letter first (thank you, Ruth – your idea is the essence of simplicity and kindness). Even so, though wanting to be kind to her, I have no desire to rekindle the friendship.

    Meanwhile, if further thoughts occur to you, I’d be grateful to hear them. And if anyone who has dealt with this issue hasn’t yet chimed in, I hope you will.

    ETA/ The friendship didn’t end horribly. It was solid for 30 years, then dwindled for 5 more years after her remarriage to an abusive man (her previous marriages had been to good guys, but ended in divorce). The new husband and I had an instantaneous dislike for each other. I’m sure his influence caused the eventual rift.

  • #219106

    J.B.C.
    Member

    Returning old letters

    That is so neat about the volumes of letters and the memoires. Most of what we know about Austen was from letters.

  • #219122

    Rosa
    Member

    Returning old letters

    it sounds like letters are probably more important to her than to most people, so definitely send her a note asking if she wants them and telling her you are decluttering and just don’t feel right throwing them away. That’s a really sweet sentiment.

  • #219835

    Ella
    Member

    Returning old letters

    I’ve spent the last few days separating my ex-BFF’s letters from the mass of everyone else’s, and then putting hers in chronological order for me to re-read.
    A lot of work. I now have newfound appreciation for professional archivists and their patient labors. One more day of sorting, and I can begin reading. I posted this Small Notebook link on the “15 minutes” thread, but it’s worth repeating here:

    http://smallnotebook.org/2012/09/10/what-to-do-with-neutral-or-negative-keepsakes/

  • #221365

    Ella
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Today I finished reading the letters: 4 decades of friendship, 5 pounds of paper standing 8 inches high, 2 hours of sorting chronologically, 6.25 hours of reading.

    Whereas I’ve sensibly culled other friends’ letters throughout the years and saved the best of the best, somehow in her case I felt it necessary to save every single word. Why I’m not sure… perhaps because of the longtime relationship, I guess, and the habit of it.

    By the time I got up to re-reading the letters from the mid-1980s, it was clear that I had radically misremembered them as being wonderful. By and large they were filled with unhappiness tempered by very little joy… these themes continued on through the 1990s and into 2003, when we officially called it quits. I did not enjoy this reading, yet it was illuminating insofar as how faulty my own memory was (and is).
    A good lesson to learn, I suppose. I don’t know whether the letters will be useful to her or not, but that’s for her to decide.

    Now I must compose a simple note to let her know that I want to ship them to her, and then pack up everything to take to FedEx for either shipping or shredding, depending on her response. I have saved out 2 photos, 1 letter, and 1 birthday card.

  • #221367

    Irulan
    Member

    Returning old letters

    It sounds like you were remembering the joy that you took in the friendship itself, and that’s always a wonderful sentiment. I hope that rereading them, and seeing their meaning with fresh eyes, helps you to feel better about setting them free, whether that’s to the writer or back to the earth.

    Best wishes, ella.

  • #221370

    Sky
    Member

    Returning old letters

    My grandmother kept EVERYTHING, including every letter, card, etc. she ever got. When she died, my aunt went through all of it and returned it all to the original sender. I looked at a few and tossed them. I had sent them and did not want them back.

    On the other hand, I have the cards and letters she sent me.

  • #221490

    Ella
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Oh my. Tonight while I dusted out the little drawer that had held all my ex-friend’s letters, I found something I had overlooked. It was folded up flat against the inside edge… an article I had clipped, published by strange coincidence (or not so strange) just a couple of weeks after our friendship ended, nine years ago:

    http://www.sfgate.com/magazine/article/Friends-No-More-As-life-goes-by-what-of-the-2573627.php

    And also by coincidence, I was one of the children like those two mentioned in the first paragraph, except that my father was a bit younger.

  • #221685

    Ella
    Member

    Returning old letters

    My former friend has accepted the return of her letters, and I have shipped them. I’m very relieved, in fact the feeling of relief is enormously uplifting. I would not have felt good about destroying them or throwing them out, and neither of those solutions would have brought me relief. There were so many photos and other keepsakes she had enclosed, I’m glad they’ve gone back to her.

  • #221687

    luxcat
    Member

    Returning old letters

    I’m glad you feel relieved Ella, it proves you took the right steps.

  • #221717

    canuckeh
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Ella, that was a wonderful thing you did, given the bittersweet circumstances.

  • #221725

    bandicoot
    Member

    Returning old letters

    ella, your letter saga has been inspirational.
    i am very happy to hear that the whole thing has settled in a positive way for you.
    you handled it all so gracefully.

  • #221793

    Claycat
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Wow! What an interesting thread!

    Ella, that was inspired!

  • #221800

    djk
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Ella, I can imagine the sense of relief you must have. You handled that particular minefield very well indeed.

    …and I’d like to thank you: I’ve been inspired and motivated by your 15-min activities. The cumulative effect is enormous over time. I’m trying to get that into my all-or-nothing brain.

  • #221804

    Ella
    Member

    Returning old letters

    Thanks for all your good words, everyone! Now that a couple of days have passed since I released the letters, I feel even better. I wouldn’t be surprised if a box arrived in return with my own letters, and I would gladly welcome them, but of course I mentioned no such thing to my ex-friend.

    djk: I could not have done it any other way than the 15-minute method. Too many unexpected emotions came up during the process, even in just that little quarter of an hour. I was so glad to hear my timer ring… like the schoolbell for recess!
    15 minutes was just enough to make progress, not too much to cause overwhelm, and easy to pick it up again day after day.

    I was very inspired by Swede and that lovely photo she posted of her own letters after decluttering them down to the keepers and tying them beautifully with a red ribbon. I looked at that photo and thought: I want to get there, too. 🙂

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