The last letter

Author: Grace Chiarella '14

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night.”


Thus begins a promise chiseled in stone over the entrance to New York City’s central post office and the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service, whose couriers brave the elements in order to deliver mail. Luckily for the USPS, when I decided to write one letter every day for a month last July, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom was in the forecast for the northern California home from which I undertook my great letter-writing endeavor.


I’ve always loved mail, both sending and receiving it. But while I send birthday cards, thank you notes, and postcards from my travels, I’m normally not a prolific letter-writer. My “month of letters” idea was inspired by some discussions with friends, by a proven inability to keep any sort of journal, and, honestly, by cute stationery I stumbled across at Target. As I started sharing the idea with people, I was often asked how bummed I would be if no one wrote back. Each time, I assured them that I was not in it for the responses; I get such joy from getting mail that I really just wanted to share that joy with others. In retrospect, how could the effort not have also been motivated by the hope of getting some bonus joy in return? But whatever the true motivations were, I sat down on July 1 and wrote my first letter.


The inaugural note went to a friend from Notre Dame. His birthday was coming up, and, as he had been undergoing chemo and radiation for a brain tumor since November, a birthday was certainly something to celebrate. A lick of the envelope, a stick of the American flag stamp and letter one was off!


And so, I wrote. I wrote letters in coffee shops. I wrote a letter on an airplane. I wrote letters in hotel rooms. I wrote a letter in a traffic jam on 101 North (as the passenger, of course). But mostly, I wrote letters by candlelight at my kitchen table — because if you’re handwriting letters at the kitchen table, you should most certainly do it by candlelight. The letters always took me longer than I anticipated. Each one was individually crafted, so even if sentiments or sentences were repeated, the words were printed afresh every time I sat down to compose yet another missive. In general, I found the writing peaceful, the perfect way to end a long day before heading off to bed.


As the days of July turned to weeks, I wrote many letters and made many small discoveries. First? Letter writing is not cheap. (See above mention of Target stationery.) Stamps can get pricey when you’re buying more than the usual 10-pack, and that doesn’t even account for the letters that required additional postage for size or international shipping…which brings me to lesson two: There is never not a line at the post office. Ever. But, third, I discovered that writing lots of letters can lead to a special connection with postal workers. When I saw my mailman out on the street, I felt as if we were linked in a unique, almost spiritual way — though, since “Hey! I write letters! And you deliver letters!” doesn’t make the best conversation starter, I never did formalize that connection. Lesson four: Letters are the most profound form of written communication. Something about the effort it takes to write them, or maybe the way they don’t necessitate or demand a response, makes letters more ideal for sharing deep thoughts and honest feelings than text or email or a message on social media. My fifth discovery was one I’d hoped would result from this challenge — namely, that pretty much everyone loves to get mail.


In July’s 31 days, I wrote to about 20 different friends and relatives. I didn’t usually include in the letter that I was doing this letter-writing challenge, partially because I didn’t want anyone to look at the postmark of July 15 and calculate that she’d been the 15th person down on my list. And partially because getting mail that seems to be sent for no reason at all is, for me, one of life’s greatest simple pleasures. As I got further into July, I started to repeat recipients, mainly people who knew I was on a letter-writing binge and would not be affronted by my multiple letters. I wrote another letter, mid-July, to my friend from Notre Dame, as he had been readmitted to the hospital with new tumor growths and complications. In the entire month of letters, I received three responses by mail. I received many more acknowledgements and thank-yous via Snapchat and text and, in some strange generational role reversal, one “thanks for the letter!” Bitmoji from my grandma. Some letters seemed to disappear into the void; I never heard from their recipients as to whether the USPS fulfilled its forsworn duty or not. As of September 9, my letter to a friend in Spain still had not arrived in Madrid.


As a society, we don’t write letters anymore. The majority of things that show up in my mailbox are ads, offers to refinance my student loans, and mystery mail for at least five different people who lived in this apartment before me. In part, that’s what makes the occasional personal letter so wonderful. Despite USPS’s best efforts, mail is today’s slowest form of communication. And some days, it was nice to connect with the part of my life that was, comfortingly, moving as slowly as mail. I knew the majority of what I’d written would hold true in three or four days’ time when the letter arrived into the hands of the reader, and there was something powerful in that stability. Sometimes, however, life moved too fast for letters: A friend broke up with her boyfriend two days before she got my letter full of questions about their relationship; I spoke to my mom on the phone four times in between the day I mailed her letter and the day she opened it.


I must confess that I did not complete the letter-writing challenge. On the very last day of July, I felt the end of the journey should be more momentous than just another letter. I wanted it to be special and sentimental. I decided to bring the month full-circle and write my last letter to the same friend who received the first. Tears mingled with ink as I reflected upon my month of letters and my time with this friend who had just been moved to hospice care. A lick of the envelope, a stick of the American flag stamp and letter 31 was done, to be mailed the next day. It never made it to the mailbox. My friend died on August 1. I still have the letter.


Over the course of July 2017, letters for me became more than words and paper and envelopes and stamps. Those were undoubtedly the essential elements, but with them, through them, despite them, and because of them, I was able to do something more: to find small joys, to reconnect with friends, to reflect on my life, to begin to process grief.


I have not written a letter since that last day in July. I’m sure someday soon, a friend or feeling or festive occasion will motivate me to once again put pen to paper. But when it does, the new writing will carry more depth and more meaning than before. Between those first and last July letters, the world changed, my world changed and letters changed — letters changed into something that could change me.


Messenger of Sympathy and Love

Servant of Parted Friends

Consoler of the Lonely

Bond of the Scattered Family

Enlarger of the Common Life

Carrier of News and Knowledge

Instrument of Trade and Industry

Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance

Of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men and Nations.


— Inscription on the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, formerly the Washington, D.C. Post Office


Grace Chiarella’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2017 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Chiarella is a public school teacher in a Spanish-English bilingual program in the San Francisco Bay area.