When I was a little girl, I loved to stand at my grandmother’s elbow while she wrote notes. Her desk was a small secretary, the furniture equivalent of an arranged marriage between a chest of drawers and a glass-fronted bookcase. Carved into the corners of the backboard were a pair of screaming gargoyle-like creatures in bas-relief, their surly beards made from deep black hatch marks.
You would think a child too young to read would also be too young to regard those gargoyles with equanimity. I was not a particularly brave child, but the scary faces never troubled me. My grandmother’s secretary had been my great-grandmother’s first and is now mine. I sometimes look at those gargoyles, amazed they did not give me nightmares as a child.
Maybe I never noticed them screaming so far above my head. I wasn’t interested in anything about Mimi’s secretary except for the desk hidden behind a panel that dropped down from a shelf above the drawers. I loved the cubbies in back where Mimi kept stamps, paper clips, a stapler and tape, a ledger of some kind. I loved the stationery, and I loved the ink pens. A hiding place, just for writing!
Written language was a magic trick. My grandmother’s handwriting looked nothing like my mother’s, or my great-grandmother’s, and yet whatever any of them wrote could be understood by anybody who knew how to read. Was there anything more mysterious or more profound? To a child in love with language, the secretary was an altar, its hidden compartment a tabernacle.
One day when I was 12 or 13, Mimi looked up from her writing. “Someday this will be your desk,” she said to me. “You’re the writer in the family, and someday this will be yours.”
My grandmother lived to be deep into her 90s, so “someday” was a long time coming, and by then I had all but ceased to write anything by hand. Right up until she lost her eyesight, Mimi wrote faithfully to many friends and family members, a habit she had surely developed by living for much of her life during a time and in a place without telephone service. The opposite was true for me. At her funeral, I had a phone in my bag. Even as we sang “Amazing Grace,” unanswered emails were piling up in the ether.
Email is a hydra, spawning new snake-headed messages with every response. You answer a message from one person, and a dozen reply-all emails come flying back. By the time my grandmother’s secretary found its way to my house, email monopolized so much of the day that there was little left over for the kind of thoughtful writing implied by a desk built just for correspondence.
Rebellion against the email leash chaining me to my computer may explain my 2021 New Year’s resolution to write a note, by hand, every day of this year. Or maybe it was the leftover stamps my father-in-law passed along whenever he worked on the stamp collection he had maintained since boyhood. Or the beautiful notecards made from recycled paper that I can never resist, no matter how rarely I used them. Resolving to write a letter every day would help me use up the stamps and notecards accumulated over many years, repudiate the entire virtual world, and honor my grandmother at the same time. It’s one of the nicest resolutions I’ve ever made.
Mimi kept her milk glass collection on the secretary’s shelves, but I have turned them into a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities, where small treasures from nature can be safely tucked away and still remain fully visible: eggshells and wasp nests and praying mantis egg sacs, dead insects, seashells and crinoid fossils, snakeskins and one old turtle shell time-bleached to the color of bone. There’s a reassurance that rises from writing at an ancient family desk surrounded by reminders of the living world and its endless cycles.
P.S. After reading the above essay, I was motivated to rescue this beauty that was being offered on the neighborhood’s Facebook page. The caption stated that without any takers, this water-damaged secretary writing desk was destined for the dump. I rushed over to claim possession. The desk has a presence to it. Though damaged, it is still majestic. I learned that the piece originally belonged to a woman named Mary Ann.
The writing surface is in excellent shape, so I can look forward to corresponding on this “new”
letter writing altar.
Happy Letter Writing,