Addressing Change

When I married her son 40 years ago, I inscribed her address in my own book, with a fountain pen, in small, precise handwriting I now barely recognize. My address book was a tidy affair, its pages mostly blank. From New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, it features a reproduction of floral artwork for every letter. The tabs from N on have been thumbed away. I have to find S, with its photo of a French silk embroidery, by feel.

The work of a madwoman — that's what the S page looks like now. The handwriting has grown progressively larger and loopier, and most entries are crossed out, with squiggly arrows pointing to a new address, itself crossed out. "As of" or "until" are scribbled in the margins. Our three children, as well as our nieces and nephew, have gone away to college, to grad school, to innumerable apartments and far-flung jobs. That page is a record of their peripatetic adventures, and of me gasping in their wake, trying to keep up.

The page also has an entry for a certain Meara Solomon, resident of Bellevue, Wash., whose identity mystifies me. Such a wise name, such a lovely address — how can I have completely forgotten her? Meara, did we ever actually meet? What did we share? Are you still out there?

Other names make me wistful for people I remember well, though we've long since lost touch. Former landlords and roommates, couples who were once our best friends, one-time employers and teachers and students and editors, aunts and uncles and cousins, yes, even those now dead.

Some entries are in our youngest daughter's handwriting. She was an eager correspondent, with pen pals all over the world. Once, after mailing a letter to Australia, she said, "Mama, wouldn't it be cool if they invented a way you could send a letter and get an instant answer?" From the days before "e" became a prefix — that's how old my address book is. I keep it next to my Betty Crocker cookbook, equally ancient and battered.

I have a friend who worked for years as a local moving man (his address is on the P page, across from a Winslow Homer watercolor of a tropical garden). He tells stories about moving a couple into a house, later moving the woman out, later still moving her again — new place, new man, same couch.

Looking at my entries for a close friend, I can read her story: the address where she lived with her boyfriend crossed out, the address where she subsequently lived on her own crossed out, the arrow back to the first address when they at last got married. And then there is my mother-in-law, still living in the West Side bungalow she shared with her husband from the day after their wedding until the day he died. I don't need my book to send her a card.

The enormous power of a written address hit me for the first time when I was in my early 20s. I'd moved in with my boyfriend, but hadn't told my parents, to whom I faithfully wrote a letter each week, putting my old address in the return corner of the envelope. But one day, somehow I slipped — calling Dr. Freud — and wrote the address where I was cohabitating in sin. My mother immediately noticed, and demanded to know what was going on. I made up some preposterous fib, but within a few days, my boyfriend and I decided to get married. Being outed suddenly made everything so simple. Yes, we were in love for keeps. Yes, we wanted to share the same address till death do us part. What had we been waiting for, really? (I never told my mother the real story, though knowing her, she guessed.)

Should I ever get ambitious enough to buy a new book, real or electronic, would I leave out the restless friends, the mystery acquaintances, the dead relatives? Would I have the heart to delete people once so important to me that I carefully inscribed their names in ink?

No, judging by the many other people I know — sensible, practical people, who have somehow turned their books into museums of memories. One sticks photos and newspaper clippings next to people's addresses. Another uses a coverless, rubber-banded bundle of pages, stuffed with old letters, postcards, torn envelopes and printed-out membership lists of book clubs she hasn't attended in decades.

Inefficient, extremely. Yet, like another friend who balances her iPhone in one hand while paging through her little red book with the other, I can't imagine pitching my address book, where names continue to bloom among the flowers. It's now more an archive of transience than permanence. But it's also a reminder, one I can touch and hold in my hand, that if life is uncertain, it's also long.

Share this story: