Jewish World Review Dec. XX, 2003 / XX Kislev, 5764
Person To Person
By Libby Lazewnik
They were at the bottom of an old chest of drawers, long forgotten in a dusty corner of the attic. He glanced at the addresses on the yellowed envelopes. One and all, they held his father's name.
"Someone wrote these to Daddy," Shmulie said.
"Check the return address," Dini suggested. Shmulie did, and announced, "All the letters were sent by Uncle Mordy!"
Uncle Mordy was not really the children's uncle, but a first cousin of their father's. A very close first cousin. With no brothers of his own, Daddy often remarked that his cousin Mordy was like a brother to him. "And always has been," he would add, smiling.
"Maybe Uncle Mordy wrote the letters from camp or something," Dini speculated. But Shmulie shook his head.
"No, the dates on the postmarks are winter dates. Some spring ones, too... and summer. Hey, they even go into the fall! There must be a whole year's worth of letters here."
"Hmm. They must have been really close, even that far back. I mean, writing letters and all. That's not usually the kind of thing boys do."
Shmulie bristled. "Whaddaya mean, 'boys do'?"
"Exactly that. Boys aren't such big letter-writers. Everyone knows that. How much stationery do they sell for boys?" Dini folded her arms, resting her case.
Shmulie carried the letters downstairs, not deigning to answer. Impatiently, he waited for his father to return home from work.
By tacit agreement, Dini let him be the one to show the letters to their father, after he'd brushed the snow off his coat and hung it up. After all, Shmulie had been the one to find them.
Daddy's eyes lit up when he saw the bundle in his son's hand. "Hey, where'd you find those? I haven't seen them in ages!"
"They were in the bottom drawer of an old chest in the attic," Shmulie told him.
"My old chest of drawers! Well, imagine coming across those letters, after all this time..." He flipped through the envelopes, pulling out a letter here, scanning a paragraph there.
"Why'd Uncle Mordy write you so many letters, Daddy?" Dini asked, making herself comfortable on a hassock at Daddy's feet. Shmulie perched on the arm of his father's chair. "It wasn't even from camp!"
Daddy smiled, remembering. "We started writing each other because of something my sister said your Aunt Tzivia. She was absolutely convinced that boys were no letter-writers. She said that boys are simply not very good communicators..."
Dini shot her brother a triumphant look. "Well, that's true, isn't it?"
"That depends," her father replied. "Let me tell you about Uncle Mordy and me, and you can decide for your-selves...
"Parting is such sweet sorrow," Tzivia sighed. Her cousin, Shaindy, at twelve a year younger, heaved a sigh that was the twin of Tzivia's. "I know what you mean. It's so hard to leave."
"I don't want to leave either," Mordy declared. He and his cousin, Avi, both eleven, were playing a last game of marbles or trying to. It's hard to concentrate when you've got about fifteen minutes left before having to say good-bye and climb into a car and travel hundreds of miles away. The fact that the cousins were going home didn't make it that much better.
"Well, at least we'll write," Tzivia said with gloomy satisfaction.
"I'm going to write my first letter to you tomorrow, Shaindy, on my brand-new stationery."
"I'll write you every week," Shaindy promised.
Tzivia glanced at her brother and other cousin. "How about you, boys? I'll bet you won't exchange a word until we see each other again."
"Sure we will!" Mordy said robustly. "What are phones for?"
Avi nodded vigorously. "Yeah! I'll call you every week, Mordy person-to-person!" He wasn't sure what the term meant, exactly, but he'd heard his father use it once, and it sounded very businesslike.
"Big deal," Tzivia sniffed. "Calling someone up is not really communicating with them. You just say silly things, like, 'How are you?' and 'How's the family?', while the things you really want to say are all bottled up inside. Now, in a letter you can really share things."
"That's right! I'll share my favorite peanut-butter-cookie recipe with you," Shaindy said loyally.
"That's not exactly what I meant," Tzivia said. "I'm talking about feelings new experiences dilemmas. Things like that. Things that you share if you really want to reach somebody. Things that are hard to fit into a casual phone call."
"I'll fit plenty into my calls," Avi declared.
"Me, too," added Mordy. They were not about to be out-done by their sisters.
"In fact," Tzivia warmed to her theme, "I'll bet the two of you couldn't write letters if you tried. Boys just aren't good communicators, that's all."
"Who says?" Mordy and Avi cried together.
"I do. And I'll prove it to you." Tzivia leaned back, enjoying the attention, and very sure of scoring her point. "I challenge you boys to write to each other while you're apart. Just once a month. And I'll even put a cap on it six months. Just six letters. Bet you can't do it."
"Bet we can," the boys answered automatically.
"Okay, then." Tzivia smiled serenely. "Six months from now, I want to see six letters postmarked from Toronto, dated approximately one month apart. Mordy, you'll show Shaindy your six letters from Avi. Don't worry, we won't ask to read the letters themselves. Only the postmarks."
The boys exchanged a glance. The same thought had zinged through both their minds. Tzivia caught it neatly, like a ball on the rebound. "And no sending each other a blank piece of paper, or a few scrawled words. This has to be a real letter. You're on your honor. Do you agree?"
Neither boy had the slightest interest in committing himself to writing six whole letters over the course of the next half-year. In the pause that followed her question, Tzivia saw their hesitation. She pounced.
"Aha! I was right. Boys just don't know how to communicate. I mean really communicate."
"We'll do it!" her brother shouted. "I can communicate as good as you, any day!"
"As well," Tzivia murmured.
"What about you, Mordy?" Shaindy asked. "Are you game?"
"Sure! Anything you girls can do, we can do, too. You'll see!"
"Maybe," Tzivia said, "and maybe not. We'll talk in six months..."
The adults came in then, to announce that it was time to go. The minivan was already loaded up, and lunches had been prepared for the long drive. Now all that remained was a flurry of good-byes. Tzivia and Avi stood beside their parents and younger siblings in front of their house, regretfully watching their cousins drive away, and waving after them until their arms hurt.
Avi put off thinking about his letter-writing commitment for a whole week after the cousins had gone. After all, he'd just seen Mordy, hadn't he? It would be better to wait until something interesting happened, to give him something to write about.
As it turned out, however, it was Mordy who wrote the first letter. It arrived in the mail exactly twelve days after the cousins had driven away.
Avi read the letter with interest. He hadn't expected such a long letter, or such a confidential one. If he'd thought about it at all, he'd have expected his cousin's letter to tell him about school stuff, and playing ball, and maybe something cute that his baby sister had done that day. He found himself thinking about the things Mordy had written, long after he'd tucked the letter away in a drawer.
Maybe that was why, when he sat down to compose his first letter to Mordy, he found himself writing about a problem he was having with his rebbe [religious teacher] at school.
...It's not that he doesn't teach well he does. And he doesn't particularly pick on me, either. Not in a mean way, anyway. But we just don't click, know what I mean?
I know it's just a week or so since I last wrote you, Mordy, but a lot has been going on, and writing to you is better than writing in a diary! Because someone actually gets to read it. (I've never had a diary, but my sister Tzivia has her nose buried in hers practically all the time.)
From time to time, Tzivia would catch sight of an envelope addressed to her brother, lying with the rest of the mail on the small table in the front hall. When she did, she'd be sure to make a comment to Avi about it. Though the comments were approving, after a while Avi asked his mother to please put his mail aside, out of his sister's sight, until he got home from yeshiva. He didn't want his sister to be involved in his letters to and from Mordy, even in a positive way. They had become too precious to him.
Sometimes they wrote every week; other times, a couple of weeks would pass between letters. Rarely did a full month go by. A month is a long time not to share your heart with someone you feel as close to as Avi and Mordy were beginning to feel to each other.
When they'd reluctantly agreed to meet Tzivia's challenge, they'd been good cousins and great pals. Now, they were real friends. There's a difference.
"So you proved her wrong, didn't you, Daddy?" Shmulie asked, from his perch on the arm of his father's seat. "You proved that boys can, so, be good communicators!"
"I proved that Mordy and I could be, anyway," Daddy chuckled. "Maybe sharing feelings comes more naturally to girls. But boys have feelings, too lots of them. And finding someone to tell them to can be wonderful."
"Why did the letters last only that one year?" Shaindy asked curiously. "Why'd you stop?"
Daddy smiled. "For a very simple reason: Mordy's family moved to New York. Now they lived close to us, and Mordy and I even went to the same yeshiva. So there was no more need for writing letters." He sounded a little regretful.
"Did you stay close anyway?" Shaindy wanted to know. "Mostly, yes. We'd gotten into the habit of talking about real things, know what I mean? It would have been hard to go back to the old way, where we'd only talked about the games we were playing and things like that. But there had been something really special about putting things down in words." He glanced at the small bundle of letters in his hand. "I'm going to read through these tonight. Wonder if Mordy kept his, too?"
"What did Tzivia say when you showed her how many letters you'd actually written?" Shmulie asked, bouncing eagerly. "I'll bet she had to eat her words then!"
Daddy looked a little sheepish. "Not exactly. You see, I only showed her six postmarked envelopes one for each month of our deal. Mordy did the same. We never let our sisters know that we'd written so many, or for so long. We were embarrassed."
"Why?" Shaindy asked in astonishment.
"Well, you know how it is. We just couldn't put into words what those letters had come to mean to us. After all," Daddy grinned broadly, "we boys are not very good communicators! Right, Shmulie?"
Shmulie grinned back, but his eyes were thoughtful. "Maybe I'll write something to Yitzi, the kid I made friends with in camp this past summer. We speak on the phone now and then, but it's not the same..."
"I'll lend you a piece of my nicest stationery, if you want," Shaindy offered.
Shmulie shuddered. "Thanks but no thanks! This is going to be a boy letter."
He wasn't sure, exactly, what such a letter would look like, when he was done. But, for the first time, it occurred to him that it might be fun to find out.
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