It was my sixth grade teacher, Miss Kathleen Tivnan, who taught me about the four chambers of the heart and the functions of arteries and veins and who also taught me the seven parts of the letter.
The seven parts of the letter have always seemed almost sacramental to me because, through them, we communicate with one another.
Of course, the letters I’ve saved, the letters I’ve treasured, ones from my mother and my father, from childhood friends, from college boyfriends and from my daughters—they don’t really conform to the rubrics of the seven-part letter.
They don’t have a heading, date or address—though I had a college boyfriend, a film-maker, whose letters were written on tiny squares of graph paper and scrupulously dated.
But all the letters I have ever received have a salutation: “Joey, darling” (this from Mom); “Joseph,” from my father; “Josie” or “Jolene,” from friends, “Hey, Babe,” “Hey, Baby,” “Hey, you,” etc from boyfriends. From my kids: “Mom” or “Mama” or “Mama-Llama” or as they have grown older, “Broseph.” (Seriously, “Broseph?”)
And naturally all the letters have bodies. That’s what makes them letters. We share news, joys, trials, gripes, fears, hopes, plans.
And then there is the complimentary closing. That’s where Miss Tivnan taught me that we don’t say “Sincerely,” but “Sincerely yours.” We don’t say “Yours,” we say “Yours, truly.” There is a right way and a wrong way to end things. We aim to do it the right way.
As I came to the end of watching “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the steely, incisive television adaptation of Margaret Atwoods’ book of the same name, I was aware of how formally, yet reliably the characters greet each other:
“Blessed be the fruit,” is the opening salvo to a conversation.
“May the Lord open,” is the response.
“Praised be,” is the spoken and implicit surrender to any circumstance.
The incantatory, almost liturgical repetition of these phrases recalled for me the seven parts of the letter and their modified versions in the emails we send every day.
Emails, of course, ignore the seven parts. Yet the complimentary closing often remains. Our closings become a kind of coded language, a lexicon particular to what we do and in what circles we travel—or would that be, revolve? As I listened to the characters in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” signify their piety—or their adherence to enforced piety, I reflected on how I end my emails.
With friends it’s often just “—Jo,” or sometimes “xo.” Or in twinned deference and memoriam to a dear friend who passed away a few years ago, “hugs.” With my daughters (but who their age reads email anymore, anyway?), it’s “love, yer mama” by which I am really saying “I love you darlings more than life itself and would sign my name as ‘Mommy’ if only that didn’t make you think I was infantilizing you.” You see, coded language really can save us time as well as saving face.
But if I’m writing about writing—to an editor, someone responding to the column, to a magazine—it’s always “Best” or “Best regards.”
Yet if I am writing to my colleagues in the church—fellow pastors and my Bishop—it’s generally “Peace.” And if I’m writing formally as a pastor, I sign, “In Christ’s grace.”
And as I heard the formulaic greetings in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I thought about what our complimentary closings really mean. Why would I never say “Best,” when signing off to my Bishop? Why would I never say “Peace” to my editor? It’s not that I don’t wish him peace. It’s not that I don’t wish my Bishop the best.
But the expectations of our public personae seems to create a mask, an identity behind which we hide our true