An Unexpected Letter
It was a couple of weeks after Christmas, and I was standing by my mailbox in the vestibule of the apartment building where I lived in Lexington, Kentucky, holding a letter I had just received. The handwriting was not familiar and neither was the return address, although it was postmarked Seattle, Washington, the same place where Hannah Paulson used to live.
Many years ago when I was a little girl growing up on our dairy farm in west central Wisconsin, the Paulsons had lived next door to us. The two farms were the only residences located on our mile-long stretch of isolated country road, and during the summer, I journeyed down the hill a couple of times a week to visit Hannah. With her hair arranged in waves swept back from her forehead and kindly blue eyes twinkling from behind wire-rimmed spectacles, she wore cotton shirtwaist dresses in the summer and a blue-and-white or pink-and-white checkered apron.
Going to see Hannah was the highlight of my summer vacations. There was just something about Mrs. Paulson that drew me to her like the bees that were drawn to the wild roses growing around her big, old-fashioned farmhouse. I never considered that it might be rather unusual for me to enjoy visiting our elderly neighbor, even though there were no other neighbors with children for me to play with, and no other children in my family (my brother is twenty-one years older than me and my sister is nineteen years older).
During the summer, Hannah and I would cut and arrange flowers because Mrs. Paulson loved to have flowers in her house. At other times I would find her working on a project, like cleaning out the old chicken coop, or painting the barn, or weeding her garden. No matter what Hannah was doing, she always let me "help."
On days when it was too hot to be outside, we sat in Mrs. Paulson's kitchen and ate homemade oatmeal cookies. Hannah would ask me about the books I was reading (I loved to read), and she would tell me about the books she had liked to read when she was a little girl.
Hannah and her husband, Bill, had lived in Seattle before they bought the farm next to ours. The farm had belonged to a relative of theirs, and they had wanted to live in the country again. At one time, they had owned a farm in South Dakota. Hannah had been a kindergarten teacher when they lived in Washington, although she was retired by the time they were our neighbors. As the Paulsons grew older and the farm became too much for them to take care of, they decided to move back to the west coast and settled in Oregon. And yet, as I contemplated the letter I had just received at my apartment in Lexington, I still couldn't figure out who would be writing to me from Seattle. Especially since I knew it wasn't Hannah.
"Thank you for all of your kind words to my sister, Hannah Paulson. I don't know who you are, but you must have had a special, wonderful relationship with her. Unfortunately, Hannah died the day before your letter arrived?"
I sat there for a few moments, stunned.
Hannah was dead? And she hadn't read my letter?
You see, for some inexplicable reason, a few weeks before Christmas I was overcome by the strongest feeling that I ought to write to our former neighbor and thank her for being so kind to me when I was a little girl. Although - the longer I considered the idea - the more ridiculous it seemed to write to someone I hadn't seen in about fifteen years just to say thank you for being nice to me when I was a kid. So, I kept telling myself I didn't have to do it right now - that I could always do it "tomorrow."
I knew my mother still occasionally exchanged letters with Hannah, and when I finally concluded the nagging feeling was not going to go away, I called my mother in Wisconsin, got Hannah's address, wrote a letter and sent it in a Christmas card. After I mailed the envelope, I felt a certain sense of satisfaction, as if I had finally paid off an old debt.
Except that now Hannah was dead. And she hadn't read my letter.
As soon as the shock wore off a little bit, I called my mother. And when I told her that Hannah had died, we both began to cry.
"All those years when I could have written, but I didn't," I said in a choked voice. "And now she'll never know-"
I heard Mom heave a deep sigh. "Oh, sweetheart, of course Hannah knew. Besides, she enjoyed your visits as much as you enjoyed going to see her."
Nothing my mother said made me feel any better. If only I had written a week earlier. Or even just a day?
Twenty years later, I still can't help wishing that Hannah had been able to read my letter. She was one of the best friends I've ever had, but I never told her what her kindness meant to a lonely little girl who had no one to play with.
Then again, maybe that was Hannah's greatest gift to me. Through my procrastination in writing one simple letter, I learned that I should never put off until tomorrow telling my dearest friends and loved ones how I feel about them. No one knows, after all, when there might not be any more tomorrows.