Four-Kopek Stamp Ignites a Mailbox Mystery
Updated: Jun 29
Some years ago, when my son received a handwritten birthday card from his grandmother, I watched, cringing, as he tried to read her perfectly legible handwriting aloud. There were several stops and starts before my husband stepped in to help him decipher the few lines of his mother’s cursive.
That was one of those moments when I imagined civilization teetering on a precipice. Here was a newly minted teenager – one lucky enough to have been in the third grade before they abandoned teaching cursive altogether. But as far as his comprehension was concerned, the birthday wishes may just as well have been written in ancient Sumerian. It dawned on me then that he and the generations after him would never feel that warm glow of recognition when they see the familiar scrawl of a loved one.
I still get that glow when I happen upon my grandmother’s handwriting. She may be long gone, but her careful cursive lives on. Flipping through her cook books, I recognize her pre- and post-arthritic handwriting in the margins, reminding future recipe followers to add extra butter, or use onions the size of a tight fist. I remember the letters she sent me when I was at sleepaway camp, and the enthusiasm with which I ripped them open; even without a return address, I knew those letters came from her own hand.
Recognizing the handwriting of a friend suggests an intimacy developed over years of postcards, notes passed in class – even grocery lists. We learn to recognize the cursive quirks of our loved ones. A skinny “h” squashed in between a “g” and a “t.” The capital “F” that looks like a sailboat. The “q” gone rogue. But this intimacy, I fear, is lost. And perhaps not only among the under-30 crowd.
It occurs to me that I, too, may be losing the ability to recognize – and read! – handwritten messages.
The other day I got a postcard in the mail. Always a happy occurrence! It was from a friend whose name definitely begins with B. Beyond that, I was uncertain.
Having scrutinized the card for 24 hours (well, I took breaks), I finally grasped the full message – all twelve words. In my defense, part of it was covered by the postmark. But having deciphered the text under “South Jersey” and the date, I was not much closer to an answer. It included my name, and a reference to my ethnicity. But who sent it?
The handwriting was completely unfamiliar, so I had to use context clues to figure it out.
First, there was the postcard itself, purchased in the Soviet Union. The front depicted a photo montage of Armenia’s Lake Sevan in Cyrillic and Armenian script (thus the reference to my ethnicity), and in the right corner of the address side of the card there was a 4-kopek postal service of the USSR stamp. This means the postcard had to be at least 30 years old, since the USSR collapsed in 1991. Ergo, it was likely that my friend “B” had to have traveled to the Soviet Union, or at least been there shortly after the USSR collapsed, when there was still an ample supply of 4-kopek postcards.
And then there was the point of origin. The South Jersey postmark helped me narrow it down to two potential senders. One a fellow Armenian who gets around New Jersey (and possibly had traveled to Soviet Armenia, but I was not sure). Another a friend who works in Philly and studied with me for a semester at Leningrad State University, back when there was still a Leningrad. And a Soviet Armenia.
I toggled back and forth in my mind between these two possible candidates. While I keep in touch with both of them by phone or email, I have not seen their handwriting for many years. It was completely unfamiliar to me.
I needed more clues, so I turned to the words I had already deciphered. That’s when I noticed the loopy lower case “g.” That thing had a tail on it at least a half an inch long. The signature featured a similar dip. But did I have any “B” friends who had a “g” in the middle of his name? What other letter could that possibly be? I ran through the alphabet. By the time I got to Y, I’d figured it out.
Okay, maybe it’s not Sherlock Holmes worthy, but I was pretty pleased with myself. And for the record, B, now that I know you sent it, I did appreciate the thought. And, yes, it did resonate. Although perhaps not in the way you had anticipated. And I do not mean to imply that your handwriting is illegible. It’s beautiful, in fact. The fault is mine. My cursive-reading skills are shamefully out of practice.
So keep those cards and letters coming, friends. Let's hold on to that slice of civility.