I was surprised that none of my students had questioned me about the word epistolary on the assignment sheet. They were to write a letter to a future generation about a current societal problem. My assignment sheet also included a section, “Characteristics of Epistolary Writing,” and I was curious why no one piped up with, “Professor, what is that word? I thought we had to write a letter.”
We’d read and discussed both James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Dear Son” as models so it seemed as though they understood what they needed to do for the essay but didn’t know or care what the writing style was called.
However, since no one posed the question to me, I posed it to them.
“Does anyone know what the word epistolary means?”
Silence, as was usual for the Zoom class. More than once I’d ended the class early out of frustration, slipping out, “ending the meeting for all” because no one was talking in the discussion except me.
I waited several minutes. More silence.
I’d been practicing letting the silence linger instead of jumping in with the answer or another question in desperate hopes that something I said might resonate with at least one person, which would stir up a scintillating back and forth among the students.
More black boxes on the Zoom screen. Couldn’t they at least post a photo of themselves—even an avatar? Maybe it’d be just a little easier talking to a simulation of a human than a black box on a screen.
The frame around Alex’s black box lit up, meaning he’d unmuted his microphone and was starting to speak.
Fingers crossed. I was hopeful.
A voice from the void.
“Epistolary. Isn’t that like alcoholic?,” he asked, possibly still asleep.
My mouth opened but no words came out. This time, I was silent.
It took me a few seconds to pull myself together. “Well, Alex, not exactly. Epistolary actually means a letter.”
“Why don’t they just call it ‘letter writing’ then? Why the fancy language?,” he asked.
“The word is derived from Latin, from the Greek word epistolē, meaning letter.”
“Can’t we just write a text to a future generation or make a TikTok video?”
“Epistolary writing,” I rambled on, “is a popular form of literature because it mimics real life, which can add greater realism to a story. Remember the essays we’ve discussed?”
My students weren’t buying it. I could tell, even without their cameras on in the Zoom class that they were probably all on their phones or texting their friends watching Netflix. Some might have gone back to sleep.
I tried to make some witty joke about the connection between letter writing and alcoholism to get their attention, but what came to me was a suggestion from a teaching workshop: Share personal experiences. If you want to engage your students, share personal experiences.
“Okay, here goes,” I thought.
“I’ve actually written more than one letter to a future generation,” I told them. “To my hoped-for one day children. I want them to know what I was like before they were born.”
Someone was listening. A light around Katie’s Zoom frame. “What’d you say to them? What’d you do with the letters?”
The last letter I’d written was to my daughter. I knew she was a girl even though she died before she’d even really lived. She’d likely only been “undeveloped fetal tissue” the doctor said when he couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat.
The bereavement group recommended writing to the dead as a way to heal.
They recommended starting the letter as you would any letter, “Dear [Name].” Except I hadn’t named her. That would have made her more real.
I don’t know why you were here for such a short time. I don’t know where you are or who you are, or who you have become. I don’t know if you know us. If you see us. Or if you’re angry that we have other children. Or that I sang to them instead of you? That I forgot the date you died and that we don’t celebrate the day you were supposed to have been born?
Do you know that I think I see you when the sun shines through the curtains a certain way? Or when I’m home alone the low humming I hear might be you? That when I look in the mirror I hope you might be standing behind me? Do you know I wait for you to return to me in dreams?
Do you know I write these letters? That I’ve saved them all?
Susan Bucci Mockler’s poetry has appeared in several literary journals, including Gargoyle, the Maryland Literary Review, peachvelvet, Maximum Tilt, Pilgrimage Press, Crab Orchard Review, Poet Lore, The Northern Virginia Review, The Delmarva Review, The Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Cortland Review, The Paterson Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, Voices in Italian Americana, and several anthologies. Her collection of poetry, Covenant (With), was published by Kelsay Books in November 2022. She lives in Arlington, Virginia and teaches writing at Howard University.