In Zimbabwe, I wrote letters. Some were to my parents, some to friends, a couple to myself. Mostly, I wrote to a boy who’d loved me when I left but wouldn’t when I came home. During those months making sadza with my Sisi Portia and singing songs at human rights retreats, I covered thin blue airmail pages with stories and wishes and questions and promises. Sometimes the outsides of the envelopes were canvas, and I’d doodle around the address and play word games at the flap.
The highlight of any week was finding something in the mailbox from the states. How young I was then. Deep in the Masvingo province, red soil stained my shoes as I blistered my hands digging the foundation for a schoolroom. At the edge of Harare, I crammed myself into the back of an emergency taxi with six strangers to make the commute back to my host family. Passing through the market, I breathed smoke rising from tin drums where the maize was roasting. I ducked my head against catcalls from men too long at the beer hall calling, “Hey, musikana, marry me! Buy me a walkman!”
Here was this 20-year-old girl learning to carry on an entire exchange in a Bantu language, and it was still the mail from home that lifted me.
It’s too long ago to remember anything in those letters. The boy and his housemate wrote to me together a time or two, though they mercifully kept me in the dark about their new status. The content of any correspondence mattered far less than the fact of it. I wanted to touch a place that held me, or maybe just know I was remembered.
I understand now that mail from home was a status report on the acceptability of the exchange. This was its real value. My correspondents were still in the game. Play could continue.
I was too busy writing to realize that the act itself was shaping the journey. As much as these missives were “mail,” they were diary and commonplace book, hymnal and captain’s log. An envelope from home was an invitation to keep coloring in, keep making the story into what it was trying to become.
When I returned to the states, the boy handed me all that stamped and creased paper I’d sent from Africa, now neatly tied in string. He gave me back my pile of words. I hated him more for that than for choosing the other gal. The letters were for him to cherish. For that semester in Zimbabwe, I rode high on a precious delusion that he prized every word. I pictured him sneaking into his room and closing the door to read, re-read, get drunk on ink and fall a little more in love with me.
Did I mention how young I was?
I figured he’d guard those letters with his life. And here he was, handing them back to me.
Maybe I took them but it’s hard to remember now. Too many moves, too much life. I looked away, and the decades absconded with the bundle. I wish I had grabbed them from him and stashed them in a fireproof box. I wish I’d known what a story they’d make.
I wish a lot of things.
Today, I wish that on my son’s first day of his first year of sleepaway camp, the newness will offer him an untried self, the guides will provide a net, and the knowledge of home — out here, always here — will run so deep in him, he forgets to need me at all.
But in case he does, his mom will be there. Every day at mail call.