We Saved Every Letter We Wrote To Each Other Over 60 Years. Here’s What Happened When We Read Them Again.

A 2024 photo shows bundles of letters and notes that the author and Steph, her friend, sent each other.

A 2024 photo shows bundles of letters and notes that the author and Steph, her friend, sent each other. Courtesy of Megan Vered

On a scorching June day in 2020, in the middle of COVID-19 lockdown, I hauled a bankers box labeled “Megan’s Correspondence” down from the attic. For a week I isolated myself in my upstairs bedroom, where I gathered piles of frayed paper in my hands, replaced disintegrated rubber bands, and tossed out long-forgotten mail that no longer tugged at me. I organized most of the letters and notes into bundles that I placed in large manila envelopes, which I addressed and then delivered to my local post office.

It was my own version of “return to sender.” I thought the decades-old letters might be appreciated by the friends who had written them — a chance to reunite with the essence of their younger selves. I certainly had no need to hold on to them any longer. I did, however, preserve the flood of letters I’d received from one childhood friend, Steph.

Miraculously, both of us had saved our nearly 60 years’ worth of correspondence, which we began sending to each other when we were in junior high. The two of us hatched a plan to get together and celebrate our words written on a palpable variety of paper — plain, patterned, crisp, lined, unlined, logoed, folded in half, folded in thirds, folded in half and again in thirds. We could have tossed the past and considered it irrelevant, but we were motivated to turn all that stale-smelling paper into something meaningful.

On a Sunday morning last fall, we met at my house to put our years of correspondence into chronological order in preparation for a read-through. Eau de nostalgia saturated the room as we fondled the starchy paper. Before long, we were surrounded by uneven piles. It took us a full day to bundle the letters by era and place them in sequence in an accordion file, each rubber-banded bunch labeled with a sticky note identifying the sender and date range. By 5 o’clock that evening, we were emotionally exhausted from the weight of the past. We set a second date for our first official read-through.

Before Steph arrived, I set the scene with ceremonial care: the well-organized accordion file of letters, dating back as far as 1968; a notebook and pen; two mugs of Constant Comment tea with honey and milk, our chosen beverage all those years ago when we would lie stomach down on the living room shag carpet, Joni Mitchell crooning on the stereo. Finally, to sanctify the mood, I queued up our all-time favorite Mitchell album, 1968′s “Song to a Seagull,” on Spotify.

Like actors in a play, we took turns reciting our lines, starting with handwritten notes we had passed to each other in the junior high hallway between classes. It took a little extra oomph to decipher the teensy-weensy print, written with Rapidograph pen in teenage girl code. We called each other “cutie baby” and “sweetie pie,” using shortcutty language and frilly drawings for emphasis. Weighty adjectives like “putrid,” “wretched,” “horrid” and “grotesque” described our adolescent moods. We punctuated our missives with lovesick question marks and larger-than-life romantic advice, identifying the cute boys by initials: CM, MB, RH. I remember every single one of those boys to this day.

The author and Steph engaged in The author and Steph engaged in

The author and Steph engaged in “photo booth shenanigans” in 1970. Courtesy of Megan Vered

Even more entertaining were our three secret languages. “T ing in Ls” (talking in letters), a precursor to today’s texting acronyms, required advanced mind reading, which we were adept at. “ILY,” easy. “WAYGL,” a little more difficult to decipher. To master “G language,” each syllable of a word was followed by the sound of the letter “G.” “I love you” became “Agi lagove yagoo.” Our tongue twister “Ubelfuh” language was the most complex. Every syllable was followed first by “belf,” and then the vowel sound of the former syllable. “I love you” became “Ibelfi lobelfuv youbelfoo.” And we didn’t only write these languages; we uttered them at rapid speed. Our verbal inventions whooshed us into our very own private world — anywhere, anytime — and nobody knew what we were talking about.

Within an hour of delving back into our long-winded rite of passage, Steph and I were swimming in subtext. Every note demanded a backstory, if not radical clarification.

“Wait, you made out with him?”

“Yes, I remember that terrible accident.”

“Her brother died.”

“Dancing in the park to Country Joe and the Fish.”

“Everybody high.”

“What a scene.”

That first day, we traversed two years in eight hours, getting as far as 1970. By then, we’d outgrown the teenybopper phase of note-passing and had graduated to writing letters while at summer camp and on vacation. We had been transformed into savvy teens who wrote in full sentences using loopy cursive. We used terms like “funky,” “far-out,” “right on” and “gimme five.” We orbited around James Taylor, Neil Young, Carole King and, of course, Joni. We had each found love, and that, even in its most fledgling form, had shifted the dynamics of our friendship. We didn’t know the first thing about sex, yet we were already each other’s mirror and measuring stick.

The summer I graduated from high school, I wrote to Steph at summer camp: “I stayed up until 4:30 AM making out with David K of all people — we were drunk — how weird.”

Weird, indeed. I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol until I was 19. I never even liked that David, an arrogant actor at our high school, and have zippo memory of locking lips with him.

Was I creating a charade to impress my friend, or has my memory — which I still believe is flawless — slipped? I can’t ask David because he, along with so many touch points from my youth, is no longer alive.

I’m sure we’ve all had flirtations that ended up in the forgotten pile, but mine is on record, in writing, to my best confidante.

The teens swerved into the 20s. Steph and I supported each other in letters through early marriage and motherhood, the death of my father, our early careers, and the death of her father. Phone calls were too expensive back then and, because we no longer lived in the same town, we wrote. While our babies nursed and napped. While the midnight oil burned. While working at our desks.

The author, left, and Steph listen to musician Smokey Robinson in California in 2014.The author, left, and Steph listen to musician Smokey Robinson in California in 2014.

The author, left, and Steph listen to musician Smokey Robinson in California in 2014. Courtesy of Megan Vered

We lost touch during those demanding years. When we reconnected, we discovered, like separated twins, that we had both gravitated to the same profession: guiding pregnant women into motherhood. We continued to cultivate the seeds of our common language, planted so many years earlier, though our tradition of handwritten correspondence evolved to communicating by fax, and then email. Today, Steph and I WhatsApp, sharing messages, photos and videos like twittering teens.

It’s not as if we said to each other, “Let’s save our letters so that when we’re 70 we can read them.” The years simply added up, as did the piles of paper, made even more precious by the passage of time and loss. When I slipped that first note into her eager hand in the thrumming hallway of Garfield Junior High, I had no idea that we were setting the stage for a lifelong drama. If Steph and I had been a miniseries, we would be well into our 58th season.

I don’t need to examine every creased and brittle letter to know what was written between the lines of those antique pages: the blessing of a friend who always listened to me. A friend who never lost faith in me. A friend who modeled love for me. A friend who helped me stay humble. A friend who helped me see and be my best self. Or, if you like, ”seebelfee mybelfi bebelfest sebelfelf.”

For now, the letters inhabit a beautiful box in my study, in ready-to-read order. Steph and I made an agreement to revisit our letters again in a decade. We each composed a new top-secret note to be read at the 10-year anniversary. Details cannot be revealed until then.

What if one or both of us are no longer here in 10 years? Will we leave these highly personal letters to our children with instructions to burn them? Will they crumble into dust, undiscovered or forgotten? Or will a future explorer unearth them and piece together the history of two girls from Berkeley, California, their lifelong friendship cast in permanent ink?

Over the years, Steph’s children, who have found glee in the gambit of nicknames, goofy faces and hard-core laughter, have frequently asked, “Am I ever going to have a friend like Megan?” While they have witnessed how we prop each other up with comfort and concern, they aren’t aware of the times we have spoken out of turn, had our own best interest at heart, or left the other one in need. They also don’t know that after we lost our mothers, we promised to mother each other.

I know that Steph will help me solve any puzzle that life presents. Friendship is not a perfect give-and-take, but there is nothing more perfect than gathering long-lost letters, keepsakes and memories. Nothing more perfect than nurturing the bond and staying connected. All for the love of a friend.

Megan Vered, a native of Berkeley, California, has been writing for most of her 70 years. Her essays and interviews have appeared in HuffPost, Shondaland, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Writer’s Chronicle. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Megan serves on the board of Heyday Books and leads local and international writing workshops. If you tell her a joke, she will always laugh. Please visit her at meganvered.com.

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