I love treasure hunts. And finding things I thought were lost forever. There’s nothing like cleaning out a closet and finding some long forgotten gem. An old photograph. A thinking-of-you card or note. A love letter from someone you once thought you couldn’t live without. A concert ticket. Recital program. A baby book with a lock of hair and a lost tooth.
Most homes have storage spaces where certain things are put away. For another day. Another year. Another time. Sometimes these things get lost in the deep dark recesses at the very back. And before you know it, forgotten. Like they never existed. We had a little attic in our home that contained such consigned to oblivion artifacts. It was there that my addiction to treasure hunting began.
Little back story. We lived on a street lined with wartime houses. They were all pretty much identical except for the size. Two, three and four bedroom wooden bungalows that looked like they were built more for hasty necessity than longevity. The big bad wolf could blow one over with a huff and a puff. Ours was a four bedroom model, with two of those bedrooms on the second floor where the ceilings were sloped and the walls hung low. My two older brothers occupied one of these rooms. The other was where Ma sewed and I played by her side.
In “the boys room” there was a little door about three feet tall. It looked like something that belonged on a child’s play house. It’s Lilliputian size made it all the more alluring. Irresistible. Tempting. And I was drawn to it like a bee to honey. A moth to light. In my young impressionable mind it was the door to a whole other world. Not necessarily like the one in The Chronicles of Narnia. But equally fascinating and compelling to a small girl with a big imagination. Truth was, on the other side of the door was just our attic. And not like the kind you see in the movies either. It wasn’t some dusty expansive space on the top floor of an old mansion filled with cobwebs and spooky pirate chests that groaned when opened. It didn’t contain the magical world of Narnia with all its Turkish delight, White Witch and the great lion king Aslan. But it was filled with family treasures. And its own flavor of magic. At times it could be scary. And sometimes with a little inspiration, it could be downright spine-tingling. But it was always fun to explore.
It was dark, dry and dusty smelling with extreme temperatures. In the summer it was like the fires of hell. You’d break into a sweat after two minutes. In winter, it was colder than the Arctic. You could see your breath if you could see at all. It was pitch dark so you had to leave the door open and carry a flashlight. The floors were uneven and creaked with ever move you made. Slivers in stocking feet were commonplace. There was also the odd nail that popped up out of nowhere. The outer wall was lined with pink fiberglass insulation. And slanted so that the entire space formed a perfect right-angle triangle. It was cramped and claustrophobic, which made moving around a challenge. Even for a small person. You had to hunch over or crawl on all fours. But to me, it was the perfect size and shape.
Part of the fun of going into the attic was the fear. Nothing filled my heart with terror quite like the scary shadows cast by the flashlight. Ricocheting sinisterly off the fiberglass walls in the ghostly enclave within the upstairs bedroom. Littered with the artifacts of our family’s personal narrative. Dusty cardboard boxes filled with worn out clothes. Old baby doll carriages with broken wheels. Tangled webs of Christmas lights. Battered suitcases with broken locks. The canvas tent and metal poles. Old hard cover books. Stacks of dog-eared Popular Mechanics and Readers Digest. Family Circle magazines with all the recipes clipped out. Shoe boxes filled with old negatives of photographs taken on the Six-20 Brownie Junior. A bulky Scrapbook containing a lock from a first hair cut, and pages of birthday cards and other childhood memorabilia taped carefully into place. Dance Costumes stored in a McNulty’s dress box. Old dolls with missing eyelashes and hair cut short by an amateur hairdresser. Dime store Dishes with chips and cracks. Bundles of metal clothes hangers. And sundry bits and bobbles that The Old Man and Ma kept for reasons known only to them. Treasures each and every one. Freshly discovered foray after foray into the enchanted land.
I experience this same awe and wonder every time I re-discover the letter from Jerry.
Over twenty years ago, when I was working in a Toronto advertising agency as a Copywriter, I was partnered with an Art Director named Jerry. We got to know each other quite well over the course of the year that we worked together. Professional lives quite often blur into the personal in these circumstances. We seek the universal thread that binds. Common ground. Connectivity. I think it makes us better workers. And our work better.
It was during one of our many creative sessions that Jerry and I somehow got onto the topic of mail. I had mentioned how much I loved opening the mailbox to discover a surprise card or a letter. But this rarely happened, I explained. All I ever got was bills and junk mail, I complained. I longed for the good old pen pal days, I declared. Sigh.
My self-esteem was at an all-time low when Jerry and I had this discussion. My marriage had fallen apart. I felt ugly. And not only unloved but unlovable. Jerry listened. I had no idea how well until a few days later.
It was a night like a hundred other nights. I came home from work exhausted. Rushed to get dinner started before my kids tore one another apart. Fury induced by hunger and low blood sugar. All three of us. Once dinner was underway I hung up my coat, kicked off my boots and went to the mailbox. It contained the usual things. Bills, bills and more bills. Junk mail from companies wanting me to buy their goods or services. Disappointing all of it. But in amongst the undesirable mail was a white business sized envelope addressed to me in cyan colored ink. The kind used in fountain pens. Or fine writing instruments as they were commonly referred to back then. We all owned at least one. In fact, I was given one when I departed from this agency. And still have it as a keepsake and a reminder of another time, another place.
Just the sight of that cyan blue fountain ink made my heart beat faster. I didn’t recognize the handwriting. But something told me it was going to be good. No matter what. In that instant before opening the envelope there was optimism. And hope. Elation. My hands were shaking as I carefully removed the folded lined sheet of paper. It looked like a page removed from a student’s notebook. Six by nine inches. Blue horizontal lines with two red vertical ones forming the margins.
It began “Dearest Bonney.” You could tell that the writer had corrected the spelling of my name because the dot over the misspelling was still there. I hadn’t spelled my name with an ‘ie’ since grade eight. But this only added to the sweetness of the salutation. The letter went on to say, “This may only happen once so really enjoy it. But it’s happening because you are truly the kind of person who deserves to come home and find a letter from someone….” The rest is between me and Jerry. It was (and still is) the best letter I have ever received in my entire life. I hold it amongst my dearest possessions.
Jerry and I weren’t lovers. There was no office romance. No secret affair. We were just “Buds.” Colleagues. Friends. But he gave me a gift like no other.
That was well over twenty years ago. I have not only moved across the country, but have lived in several different houses since I got here. Yet the letter has moved everywhere with me. I packed it away when we left for the Westcoast.
But there’s a peculiar thing about this letter. It keeps being found. Over and over and over. It’s the Groundhog Day letter. I pack it away. Forget about it. And then a few years later I discover it. All new and fresh again. Like that night twenty years ago. Like the treasures in our attic. Every time I pack it away it’s in a different container, in a different spot. This isn’t intentional. It’s usually as a result of some sort of house cleaning. Or purging of the past. And with that goes the consolidation of those things being chucked and those things being kept. The letter from Jerry is always in the “keeper” pile. I love the serendipitous nature of discovering the letter. The random accidental unearthing of this jewel every few years.
It happened again last Saturday. I was on the hunt for more family photographs and bits and pieces of our history when I found it. Tucked away in a box inside a basket at the top of one of the closets in my office. It’s an awkward spot. Things that are stored there, are left there. Kind of like Las Vegas. But last weekend I was on a mission. And the great treasure hunter in me had re-surfaced. I had to find something good. And I did.
In the box along with Jerry’s letter there was an assortment of random things. One of the most peculiar items was a placemat I made in elementary school for Christmas. It looked like it was made from a white sheet. It was adorned with two red bells, several food stains and “Merry Christmas” in my handwriting. There was also a letter from my parent’s lawyer regarding their estate, a slide rule from high school, a golf ball, a Sarah McLachlan Surfacing CD cover, a photocopy of an American Express card cut into four pieces, a 19-year old candy rose and a combination lock.
There were a lot of other things too. But once again I separated the wheat from the chaff. All the stuff I described, along with the letter from Jerry, has now been placed into another box and stored away. For the next time. When I need to be reminded that I am someone who deserves to come home from work and find a treasure in the mailbox. Love in cyan blue fountain ink.
Footnote: I have no idea where Jerry is today. I don’t even remember his last name. But I will never forget him and his wonderful thoughtful gift.