An Education in Letters

The trunk had sat locked in various basements for well over 25 years. It was one of two trunks I’d used to ship my belongings to Grinnell back in August 1971, and it still had my name and the Grinnell College address painted in green letters on the outside.

Last year my wife and I sold the house where we’d lived for two decades and downsized to a condo. While cleaning out the basement, I came across my old trunk. When I finally pried the lock open with a small crowbar, I discovered a different sort of treasure than what I’d imagined; the trunk was full of letters. Some were in shoeboxes, others in manila envelopes, and a few in batches held together by aging rubber bands. The letters covered several decades of my life, including my time at Grinnell, junior year abroad at Durham University in England, my graduate school years in Minneapolis, and my first 20 years or so in the Boston area.

My first response to seeing all these letters was to feel overwhelmed, and I had a momentary impulse to throw them away. But when I plucked one of them at random and read about what a Grinnell friend was doing the summer between sophomore and junior years, I knew I couldn’t get rid of them without reading them first. Instead, I transferred them to a large box and moved them to our condo.

A couple of months ago, I located that box and began working my way through the letters, one batch at a time. The letters that interested me the most, I soon realized, were those from Grinnell friends and acquaintances. Those coming-of-age college years have a profound impact on people’s development, and I had formed a particularly strong bond with a small group of college friends.

“No one will ever open a trunk in a basement and find a cache of emails.”

What struck me first was the sheer number of letters in the box. We wrote each other constantly: during summer vacations, winter breaks, and even short spring breaks. And after we’d graduated from Grinnell, we kept writing on a regular basis for decades.

The length of our letters also amazed me. They often consisted of four to six pages of small print, sometimes more. We had clearly spent many hours of our lives writing these letters.

Reading letters from my Grinnell friends stirred many memories — of people I barely remembered and events I’d long forgotten. And the experience was often as painful as it was pleasurable. We had our fair share of unhealthy relationships and bad choices, the reminders of which were sometimes difficult to relive.

We also displayed some of the pretentiousness and self-righteousness that are often features of that age period. But beneath the occasional posturing, I observed something more admirable taking place: an attempt to sort out who we were and where our passions lay. And as the Grinnell years gave way to the post-Grinnell years, I saw something else happening in these letters. I watched my friends forge their lives, recover from false steps, figure out careers, find long-term partners, start families, face down serious illnesses, suffer painful losses, and keep going through it all.

By the time the 1990s rolled around, the once steady stream of letters had slowed to a trickle. And when my core group of Grinnell friends arranged to attend our 25th Reunion in the year 2000, letters were fast giving way to emails. That makes me sad to think about now. No one will ever open a trunk in a basement and find a cache of emails.

As I read through my letters, I began to separate them into piles. Then I put each of these piles into a large manila envelope and sent them all off in the mail. I wanted to share with my Grinnell friends a window into their younger selves: to show them where they’d come from and remind them they had not made the journey alone.

Peter Guthrie ’75 majored in English and history at Grinnell and then received a master’s degree in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. After teaching English for six years, he eventually returned to graduate school and received a master’s in clinical social work from Simmons College. He worked as a psychotherapist at Wheaton College in Massachusetts for 18 years and now maintains a private practice in the greater Boston area.

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