“What’s this?” my niece Vivian asks. She’s rummaging through my desk on a Saturday afternoon in early January because “Mommy is napping,” and at four years old, Viv insists she’s too old for naps. (I don’t bother to point out that Mommy is much older than four and is napping—we’ve been down that road before, it gets us nowhere.) She’s holding up a box of stationery that I keep tucked away with some stamps and address embossing tools (because I’m a sophisticated mailer—like a young Virginia Woolf).
“They’re letters,” I tell her. She frowns and opens up each blank card. “There’s nothing in them.” She’s only known cards from her birthdays, and they all had cartoon characters on the front with fancy handwriting and some money for her piggy bank.
“They’re for me to write letters to my friends.”
Vivian stares at me blankly, and I can’t decide if it’s because she doesn’t believe I have friends, or if she doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. Viv knows about the mailbox; she knows that every few days Mommy stops at it on the way home from school, and when it’s warm enough out, she gets to walk down there with her and carry some of the papers back inside. But she’s never written a card to anyone or gotten one in the mail for herself.
“Like Ava and Anora?” she asks. Ava and Anora are her cousins, my other nieces. Ava, Anora, and Viv are all obsessed with each other. Every family picture they’ve ever drawn includes all three of them, sometimes at the expense of the inclusion of their parents. They are constantly coloring pictures for each other and giving each other little gifts they find lying around the house. Most of the time, the gifts are items that don’t actually belong to them, but it’s the thought that counts. By the time I’m talking to Viv about stationery, it’s been something like a week since they’ve last seen each other, and withdrawal is setting in.
“Yeah. It’s like when you draw a picture for them, but instead of giving it to them when you see them, you put it in the mailbox and the mailman—or mailwoman,” I add, just in case I’m unwittingly instilling patriarchal values into a malleable four-year-old’s mind, “comes and picks it up, then brings it to their house.”
You’d Be Surprised What Goes Inside a Four-Year-Old’s First Piece of Mail
“I want to send them this one.” It’s a card that says, “I miss you all yeti”, and I honestly can’t imagine myself sending it to anyone in the future. Plus, this feels like a teachable moment, as well as five minutes of her being busy so I can balance my checkbook.
“Sure.” I offer the card to her and point to the empty space inside. “Why don’t you draw them a picture here?”
“No. I’m going to write them a letter,” she insists.
“How do you write a letter?” she inquires. (So much for my checkbook.)
“Here,” I say. “How about you tell me what you’d like to say to them, and I’ll write it down? First, we’ll say, ‘Dear Ava and Anora,’ so they know the letter is for them. Then, we can say whatever we’d like—what do you want to say?” She provides me with a bunch of random thoughts and sentences until the page is full, and I have her sign her name, which she’s been practicing at daycare.
*written with the assistance of Auntie Ashley during Mommy’s naptime.
Dear Ava and Anora,
I love you. I hope you come to my birthday party (A/N: her birthday is in July, but I am a loyal scribe and wrote it anyway). I like you. Happy new year! Blow a whistle (to celebrate) (A/N: I am not loyal enough a scribe to not put in the “in celebration” part, purely for context). I hope someday you sleep over at my house. I hope you come to Arizona with me a lot of times so we can swim together. I think I’ll like you forever. Soon it’s going to be Pink Hop’s birthday and I hope you can come to her party and play again.
Deciding the letters aren’t enough, she pulls out my Polaroid camera that I regret showing her and asks to take pictures to send to them. We take a bunch and I include them in the card with some brief captions.
P.S. here are some pictures we’re sending to you that we took today. They are of Auntie Ashley, Pink Hop and Vivian, and Vivian.
When Vivian starts having a fit that it’s not part of the letter, I explain what a post script is and why people use it in letters. I actually start to get on a roll and am explaining the Latin roots when my precious little niece, whom I’ve lovingly dedicated my free weekend to, physically turns away from me to start playing with my letter embosser, effectively telling me that she has no interest in any of the dead languages.
I have Vivian stuff the envelope and lick it and even give her a sticker to secure the flap. Halfway through, she fails to fully commit to licking this object she’s found lying around the house and doesn’t get it quite sticky enough to be sealed. I give her a stamp and show her where to put it, then let her use a rubber address stamp to add the return address while I pen in my brother’s address. Since this is the first piece of mail Viv’s ever sent, she asks questions about all of it—why do we need a stamp? What’s an address? Why do we need to put our address on it? How do I know what the addresses are?
I know she’s only four, but I start to wonder if any of this would have been taught to Vivian as it was to me. I’ve heard schools have stopped teaching cursive—would they teach how to mail a letter? It makes me kind of sad—I loved getting cards in the mail as a kid (and, admittedly, now). I remember thinking how cool it was lifting the flag on the mailbox and eagerly waiting to hear from whomever I sent a card to. I still send Christmas and birthday cards out to my friends—it’s so much more personal than sending an e-card and shows that I’ve been thinking about them for longer than the quick text I send out the day of. At the very least, Viv gets to experience it now, and Ava and Anora will be thrilled to get something in the mail in a few days.
Vivian and I bundle up and make the 20-foot trek to the mailbox with our loyal companion, Pink Hop (Purple Hop stays inside, napping with Mommy and baby sister). I let her raise the flag and explain that now the mailperson will know that we have a letter for them to pick up.
She’s a little disheartened to hear that it will be a few days before Ava and Anora will get it—after all, she’s part of the Facetime generation and only knows of instant communication. But she has her energy renewed when Mommy wakes up from her nap and she gets to explain that we wrote a letter and put a stamp on it and the mail-lady (not exactly gender neutral, but I tried), is going to pick it up and bring it to Ava and Anora’s house and she can’t WAIT—they are going to be SO EXCITED!
The rest of the afternoon is spent with Vivian impatiently looking over my shoulder as I’m balancing my checkbook, handwriting checks, and letting her stuff and stamp envelopes. Normally, I’d use Venmo or another banking app, but today, mail is the best, and the most fun—and who cares if it takes a few extra days? What matters is this time with her.
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