The summer after I graduated eighth grade, I spotted a purple envelope in my mailbox. An all too familiar cursive looped across the front. As soon as I opened the letter, all of the memories came flooding back. Suddenly, I was eight years old again, reading a letter from my best friend.
Writing letters was all Tara’s idea. Though we sat next to each other in our second grade class, and though we lived just blocks apart, she decided we should become pen-pals. Because I idolized her and everything she did, I instantly agreed. The letters started off on simple sheets of looseleaf. They were short and sweet, sometimes only a line or two long, but they arrived in my mailbox every few days without fail. As time progressed, the letters became more intricate. We each bought personalized stationary, wrote with neon colored ink, and began to share secrets and stories that we kept hidden from everyone else. Though we saw each other every day at school, we never spoke about the letters. They were our own personal form of communication, something sacred between the two of us.
A year later, my parents announced that we would be moving to a new town. Devastated, I had to tell Tara that we would no longer be sitting next to each other in school. With a smile, she reassured me that we would still write to one another, and she kept her promise. For a while, the letters flowed back and forth as they always had. My change of address gave us so much to talk about. I would tell her about my new school and all of the new friends I was making. She would tell me about teachers, and boys, and everything else that was going on around town. For those first few months, the letters kept us connected. But naturally, as we got older, the time between each letter grew longer and longer. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months. Eventually, they just stopped coming at all. Separation caused us to grow apart, and without the letters, Tara seemed to just float away from my life. I had forgotten about her until that very day when I spotted the purple envelope.
Though it had been nearly five years since we’d last exchanged letters. Tara wrote as though we’d just spoken the day before. She told me about the years that had passed as if they’d just been fleeting moments. She acknowledged that we’d grown apart, but was eager to rekindle our friendship. When I saw her signature at the bottom, I nearly laughed out loud. Before her name, she’d written WBS, the acronym we always used in second grade to urge one another to write back soon. To this day, Tara and I still write letters to one another. She wrote to me in January in response to a letter I sent her in June. I still have yet to write back. It may be weeks, or months, or years, but as we’ve learned, WBS is a relative term.
There’s something so personal about letter writing. I often tell Tara things that I would never tell anyone else. Writing letters is like keeping a diary that someone else can read and validate, but only because you in turn read and validate theirs. Sending your personal thoughts into the world for another person read and keep forever is an exercise in vulnerability and trust; which is perhaps why Alice Walker chooses to structure her novel, The Color Purple, in the form of letter writing. Celie, the novel’s protagonist, writes letters to God in order to tell her story. Torn from her family and married off to a man she despises, Celie feels as though she has no one to turn to. Her letters to God express her truest feelings. She tells God how she was sexually abused as a child, about how much she misses her sister, about her obsession with her husband’s mistress. In her letters, Celie spares no detail. They are open, honest, and intimate, just like the letters I share with Tara.
Midway through the novel, Celie discovers that her husband has been hiding mail from her. She finds that her long lost sister, Nettie, has been writing to her for years. As she reads them, Celie instantly finds connection with her sister. The years of separation seem to immediately disappear as Celie reads through Nettie’s letters. Nettie’s feelings and emotions are shared with the same vulnerability as Celie’s letters to God, allowing Celie to experience a deep emotional connection, even though her sister is not physically present with her. As readers, Nettie’s letters provide us with a story, but for Celie, the letters offer her a link to the family she thought was long gone. Walker’s choice to introduce Nettie’s letters halfway through the novel only reiterates Celie’s feelings of loss and longing. Deprived for so long, Celie seems to forget about the love she had for her sister. But the familiarity of the letter offers great comfort to the previously downtrodden Celie. Just like Tara’s letter that showed up at my doorstep all those years later, Nettie’s letter to Celie represents a new beginning, a turning point that will hopefully change her life for the better.