I set up my side of the dorm room, brand new Smith-Corona typewriter on the desk, brand-new luggage in the closet, framed photo of my boyfriend on the bookcase, new sheets on the bed.
“Hi, I’m Carol, you must be Helen,” I say as my new roommate arrives with her stuff. She is from a small town in Pennsylvania, and just as nervous-excited as I am about launching our new lives as college freshmen living away from home.
Then it’s off to meet the other girls on the hall: “I’m Pam from Connecticut…,” “Mimi from Pittsburgh…,” “Debbie from New York City…,” “Candy from Virginia…” Soon enough, we meet nervous-excited girls on other floors, Martha, “call me Marty…” from Massachusetts, Sue also from Pittsburgh, and a little later, our “big sisters,” juniors the college has matched up with “little sister” freshmen. “Hi, I’m Roz, you must be Carol…”
Everything is new, and we freshmen must learn the ropes (with or without the help of our “big sisters.”) Find our way around. Classrooms, dining hall, bookstore. Gym with its indoor pool so we can all take the mandatory swimming test. There is a campus bank, a coffee house in the chapel basement, the President’s house to which we must go to attend a tea.
Finally, there are the assigned mailboxes, a large bank of six hundred look-alike square-shaped boxes with little glass windows and brass doors and knobs in the basement of the administration building, conveniently located near a small canteen with snacks and Coke machines, a few tables, chairs, a booth or two. Everyone knows her box, can pick it out in a heartbeat, more than ready to grab her mail. No texts or emails in those days; every piece of snail mail vital.
I was only about thirty miles away from home, and didn’t expect my family to drop notes or cards in the mail. I was happy enough to hang out with friends and have a Coke in the canteen while they read theirs. They always made a big point of checking their mailboxes every day. They are much further away from home, I consoled myself. But it became harder and harder as the weeks, then the months went by, and my mailbox was always empty. Anyone could see through the little window that it was.
I admit I started feeling sorry for myself. It was hard to ignore the squeals of delight, the gushes of excitement around the mailboxes every day, much of which spilled over into the dorm, into the dining hall, into classes. Girls chattered on and on about what packages and cards they had received. My mail box was in danger of “rusting out,” I used to say.
My self-pity reached its climax as semester finals approached. Unbeknownst to me, the college sent letters to all students’ parents, asking if they would like to have a “care package” sent to their daughters. These packages, which everyone else in my dorm received, contained all kinds of goodies and were meant to say, “good luck, stay healthy, try to relax, don’t get too stressed, and of course, know that you are loved and your family is pulling for you.” As I recall, these boxes were packed with vitamins and aspirin and gum and candy, a deck of cards, jacks. That’s what I saw in everyone else’s package. I did not receive one. No squeal of delight, no burst of excitement.
After that, I gave up on my mailbox. As the new semester began, I just didn’t worry about it any more. Sure, I still hung out with friends in the little canteen between classes, still had to walk past the bank of six hundred mailboxes.
It was February 12th, maybe the 13th when out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something in the little window of my brass box. Could it be true? Was that a white sliver I could just see through the window? Could it be the edge of an envelope?
My hand shaking, my breath sucked in, I pulled on the knob. What might this be?
The little door opened with a mighty swing. I touched the white edge gingerly, yes, an envelope. No, snatch it out, my gush of excitement blurted. Yes, it really was addressed to me. Who? Who had sent it, this most remarkable and delightful thing of joy?
“Who is it from?” Helen asked. A huge smile overtook me. Sunshine shot through my being.
“My future mother-in-law,” I said, opening the small white envelope. “Look, it’s a valentine.”
Helen and I stood stood in wonder. It was so simple, so magnificent. It was just right. A folded heart cut from red construction paper. Hand-made. Inside the heart, the message was eloquent, understated. A soaring piece of oration.
My future mother-in-law had put down her scissors, taken up her pen and inscribed the little heart—the only piece of mail I received that year—with a simple line that said “Happy Valentine’s day.” Her words, her care inscribed themselves on my heart. They told me “good luck… stay healthy… relax… your family loves you and is pulling for you.”