Far scarier than evil men … is the idea that, wonderful as my life has been, there might have been more, or less, or different.
(From Rachel to herself: a letter to be read in seventy-seven years)
Isle of Wight, Virginia
Dear (Seasoned, Revered, Etc.) Rachel,
You sit on the pinnacle of a very long life. Happiest of Happy Birthdays to you (us?)! You’re now a centurion. Is that what they call people who have reached one-hundred? It’s not? Pity. It was a good thought, seeing as you’re nearly Roman-ancient now.
I wonder what your life has been. Let’s hear how you found your true love; did you love him first, or did he dog your footsteps and spill coffee on you till you recognized his merits? Or maybe you never found him. Maybe you grew old and beloved by a slew of nieces and nephews instead. Taking things into account as they stand now, that’s highly probable. Standards are wonderful for scaring off men.
But you’ve turned one-hundred, and this is about you, not me. Except, I guess it is.
History always fascinated you. What have you seen? I only know—not quite, almost—a quarter of everything that’s happened, and it’s enough to make me glad this life is only the title-page of the best of Stories. It can be a little frightful, if I’m perfectly honest. Sin doesn’t get nicer with age, opportunity, and technological advancement.
Twenty-five percent of your life is where I stand, if you’re really one hundred, and it isn’t a clever hoax. It’s a nice place, a little winded, and you’ve done it three times! What larks. I don’t want to tire you (is your spirit old, or do you still like letters?), but I have things I want to know: did you keep your hiccupping laugh? Where did your lines fall? I hope you got crow’s feet instead of potato-furrows between your eyebrows, because you always had a fear of looking disagreeable. Do you still wear bright red lipstick? How did it feel to smash that change jar and go to London with Katie? When did you give up high-heels, or do you still wear them? And last of all, because it rather terrifies me: are you losing your mind to the childishness of dementia, or did you get the palsied end of old age? I think sickness would be easier to bear. I would hate to lose my wits and be thought ridiculous and smiled on patronizingly. I hope you still have the sense of humor—it was a good one.
As you can see, I am plenty curious despite being only a quarter of the person you are. If you haven’t outgrown it, you’ll be a piece of work by now. You always enjoyed people like that. Some people suffer from a deplorable lack of curiosity and become boring. Boring’s worse than ridiculous. Do you still think so?
Right now, I’m pretty nearly perfectly happy. As happy as I can be with plagues sweeping one third of the world and militants blowing up another third, and the rest of us trying to live reasonably well in the cramped leftovers. Did that ever let-up, or is that only the wishful thinking of a girl who is only two decades old?
But even if it doesn’t let up—history isn’t too encouraging on this point— I’m only a quarter of the way through my life; I can’t believe I’ll not die from a surfeit of joy-stabs, for even in the awfulness, they do come. There are so many beautiful things I’ve already seen. I know Heaven will be better—and on that note, are you looking forward to it?—but it’s pretty lovely here sometimes, when the sun settles on its belly over the cotton fields and laughs like raspberry lemonade. I hope you’ve not outgrown your love of noticing things. You used to talk about days when the veil between Heaven and Earth had worn thin, and those were your favorite moments. They still are, I’d guess. It’s addicting. I hope it’s the only thing I’m ever addicted to. That’s the plan, anyway, and no sense in changing it.
Small things could always make you toss back your head, crinkle your moon-eyes, and laugh. You found everything wonderful and wrote it all down in your books. I wonder if you ever became famous for your words. I doubt it—it doesn’t seem likely when you only ever wrote to amuse and please yourself and others like you (and were shaky on plot, besides), but one hundred years leaves a lot of room for surprises.
Most of all, I wonder if you like the Rachel you’ve become. If you’re proud of the way you spent your century. If there are moments that give you a pain in your gut because you know you missed it—whatever it was. How many are they, those memories? I hope, for your sake, they are few.
I don’t even know if you’ll be able to read this. Maybe you got banged in the head by someone in a wretched nursing home and woke up unable to speak anything but French, a language you never learned (or did you?). At any rate, if that is the case, please find a translator. Preferably you’ll still be comfortably settled in that lovely country house with the bosomy windows that are always open—the one you wondered if you’d ever get. If you can still hold a pen and still string words like a ticker-tape (I’m obviously in fine fettle regarding this), then please write back.
It’ll probably be the first decent thing the mailman has brought in weeks.
Always Yours (Obviously),
P.S. Please say you never took to ignoring the Oxford Comma.
(From Rachel to herself: a reply to the former, about which she’d forgotten.)
Dear (Young, Semi-Charming, Etc.) Rachel,
It is your birthday too! What a coincidence. I am still, per the obvious, alive and able to speak English as well as ever. Grammar will slip sometimes, but one grows to care less. I still revere the Oxford comma. I might be alone in this, but here we are.
You ought to know me well enough to know that I never learned a second language thoroughly—bits of languages, yes. I could say The Lord’s Prayer in Latin, recite numbers one through ten in a half dozen languages in a manner quite charming, and always managed to forget which Hawaiian word meant “hello” and which meant “goodbye,” but I was never fluent. Too many English words boxing my ears.
Your letter made me laugh till I got a side-stitch. I had forgotten how poorly you fit into the era in which you were born, and I’d forgotten how absurd (and fond of it) you were. Thank you for the reminder, darling.
You want to know about the love of my life. I feel hesitant to inform you on this point, as it feels rather like cheating. I didn’t know at your age … so you can’t. But I will tell you this: I have never lacked for love. Take that as you will. I’ll say nothing further. And remember, silly duckling, that love comes in so many forms.
“How did it feel to smash that change jar and go to London with Katie?
I actually have learned things in my century, and one is this: delayed gratification lends value to things. I played Mary Poppins for two little girls. Every week I went to the bank and deposited my check and took out a crisp twenty dollar bill. I rescued pennies from the gutter and quarters from the laundry and threw them in. I waited and dreamed and worked. And one day I traded the jar for an airline ticket and good British pounds and joined my best friend for the girlhood dream … and it was just as plummy, rainy, and tea-scented as I’d dared to hope. Besides elation, I felt terror when I bought that ticket and realized I’d given birth to a dream and had to take care of it now that it was outside imagination’s womb. The sort of terror you feel when one’s hair looks perfect and then a guest of wind turned the umbrella inside-out and you know the game’s up.
It was the same with my writing career (which, incidentally, made me famous in its own way. You’ll have to wait to find out how.)
Lots of things in life are this way. The delay, the pause, the long breath-holding till an ache begins under one’s breastbone and the lungs of hope nearly burst. And then it comes, and it comes with a color like September aspens and you realize half the glory is straight relief that the promise wasn’t a sham.
There is hope beyond this world.
There is a Story and an Author at work and if one can just hold on, things happen.
Now, I’m a century old and I still haven’t decided whether all the things that do happen are worth half the trouble they cost, but at least I can promise you that life doesn’t stagnate for the person who curries adventure.
I still wear red lipstick—found how to apply it so it won’t kiss off. My secret.
The high-heels remained till I turned seventy-five and sprained my ankle. I compromised and went in for brighter lipstick and shockingly colorful flats. One must make concessions somewhere, much as you hate to admit it.
The lines fell for me in pleasant places. Potato furrows are awful. I used prayer and coconut oil to ward them off.
I still laugh. Did it hiccup?
You called them moon-eyes. I’d call them sparkles awash in fitful gray-green. He loved them. Whom? I won’t tell. You’ll see.
From my address, you’ll realize I made it to my precious Lake District—which, by the by, you neglected to mention in your letter. I am shocked. It was your fondest, quietest dream. The story is a long and ornate one which I won’t tell now, but you’ll enjoy it.
I am tolerably well in body, my humor is intact, and if I forget certain things certain days, who cares? A century gives one perspective, duck. Dementia is the smallest thing one worries about at my age. I think if we didn’t forget now and then, our brains might implode with the sheer weight of a hundred years’ worth of remembrances. What a mess. My nurse, Erica Clark, would complain. She complained about getting me real paper. “Why won’t you use technology? We’ve come such a long way since email, and now you want paper? You’re retroactive, Miss Rachel.”
I’ll tell you why: postmen might bring boring things, but no mail at all is an atrocity.
And now I will become serious, for contrary to popular belief, I am not all whimsy and wit. Let’s see if I can manage before tea-time:
You asked if my moments of having “missed it” were many. I gather you speak of regrets. Everyone has regrets. I know of several you have at your age, and as you so succinctly stated it, you are only a quarter of the person I am. Perhaps you didn’t realize it was a regret at the time. Again, age gives one perspective on these things.
In hinting that I might be regretless, your hopes fail. Missing even one thing is a weighty sorrow. I’ve missed … well I’ve missed four times what you’ve missed. Ew. I try not to let myself be crippled by the idea, but I am still scared to wonder what might have been. Far scarier than evil men and terrifying plagues and incomprehensible technology that eradicates any notion of privacy, is the idea that, wonderful as my life has been, there might have been more, or less, or different.
I don’t think God means for us to panic over it, but there it is. The veil has yet to grow so thin it disappears and this world is not quite wonderfully safe. It lets you worry.
When I can’t remember, I can’t worry.
That’s what I mean by saying loss of memory is not so terrible. I’ve heard it called a mercy.
You are so young. Don’t waste time fretting over what you’ll be at one hundred. You’ll be me, and I’ve lived with myself for quite some time. I’m not the worst person to have been. I have you to thank for that, because what you said about addictions? You honored to it. Not to quibble, but you forgot to add cheesecake, sourdough toast, and a few random television programs to the list.
You lived what they called “clean.”
You made a thousand mistakes.
You found adventure in the commonplace.
You laughed in the exact wrong moments.
You noticed the raspberry-lemonade sunsets.
You trod on some toes.
You loved almost too freely and you gave yourself out as if there was no end.
But more than this, you pledged your life to the Author of the Story. I’m so glad you did. Shakespeare spoke of his being a charmed life. I wonder if he’d met you, if he’d have turned in his claims and surrendered the title.
Darling, you are only a quarter-me, like a quarter-moon. But the things you fought for have worn well. The colors are bright as ever. I’m still wearing them. Virtues you refused to surrender, convictions you would not deny, honesty you would not withhold…these things have enabled me to sit at the back-end of a century and enjoy the view.
Thank you, and never, ever, ever give up.
You owe it to me.
Always Yours (Obviously),
P.S. If you promise to smile at every stranger, I’ll tell you the secret to red lipstick.
P.P.S. It has to do with… I won’t say just yet. First, you have to promise.