Letter from a Stranger
By Rachel Pieh Jones
I have a letter in my purse written by a stranger, to her sister, also a stranger. It is written in blue ink on lined notebook paper, folded over several times and crinkling around the edges. It is written in broken English with a line of Arabic, a few hashtags, and a scribbled local telephone number.
I found the letter when we moved into our current house. The house was furnished but we weren’t keeping most the furnishings. The landlord asked us to move out what we didn’t want and keep what we did want. The things we removed would be tossed away.
I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on inside other homes. After dark, warm light spills out of living rooms and kitchens onto snowy Minnesota winter streets. I jog past and glance in. People’s mouths move but I hear nothing, they eat dinner but I can’t smell it. They watch television, the green glow reflects off glasses, but I don’t know what show they’ve chosen.
In Djibouti, where I live now, homes are often surrounded by high walls. Homes that don’t have walls often don’t have windows either, or have barred windows and curtains pulled tightly closed. This is to keep out mosquitos, dust, heat, thieves, and prying eyes. Like mine. Much of life here is lived outside, sometimes kitchens are pots and pans placed over charcoal fires outside the home. People nap in the shade of trucks parked on the side of the road. Men play pétanque or drink tea while sitting on overturned tin cans arranged in circles. People eat spaghetti from aluminum plates, wrapping the noodles around their fingers while watching football at neighborhood restaurants. Women breastfeed on street corners, kids brawl in the middle of pot-holed avenues.
I enjoy people watching in these countries for opposing reasons. In Minnesota I am merely an observer. The image of life moving on without me, completely unrelated to me is comforting. The people inside could be fighting, grieving, celebrating. No matter what their specific circumstances, they are alive, they are pressing on.
In Djibouti, I enter it. I smell the fried onions, hear the religious debates, interact with the pudgy babies, or join someone for tea. But at the same time, I miss the separation between insider and outsider, like in Minnesota. I miss the mystery and the speculation. I miss the curiosity, the idea that courageous people leave their lights on and their curtains open after dark and that courageous people are what the world needs. And I miss the sense that this glance is a gift, that the people inside could pull the curtains shut at any moment.
When I rummaged through the furniture in our new house in Djibouti, I felt like I was looking into a lighted living room on a cold night. Most dressers and cupboards were empty, though the fridge was filled with enough mold to provide the world with penicillin for decades. But I did discover some treasures. A chest X-ray. A working stethoscope and blood pressure band. Miniature bottles of Arabian perfumes, a single sock. Two volatile political books (about long-gone political systems in countries on other continents). And this letter.
The letter was in an otherwise empty dresser drawer. I pulled it out and carefully unfolded it. (spelling and grammar as it is in the letter)
To my beautiful sister,
Today is what you truly wait for.
Today you will start a life.
May God grant you long life
And may you both see each other in Jannah (paradise).
You were my best friend.
You were always their.
You always listen wen I was down and taught me to be close to Allah.
Your the reason I get up at 7:17 just to compete with you.
You made me a strong woman
And I am honestly blessed to have you in my life.
Time went by and you’ll be a mother one day
I pray that everything you help me to become, may you help your children.
May they be kids who fear and love Allah.
Thank you Bilane for everything.
Thank you Bilane for your smile.
Thank you Bilane for helping me with fashion.
And lastly, thank you Bilane for being a great friend.
You will always be in my dua (prayers) till the day I die.
And you deserve every happyness.
May Allah bless you married and may you both be together in Jannah.
I love you Bibie forever and always.
Who were these sisters? How long had this letter been here in the drawer? How did the marriage turn out? How did the sister Bilane earn the nickname Bibie? These questions will never have answers. I folded the letter back up and slipped it into my purse and then another question started to bother me.
Why do I keep it?
Every time I travel, I reorganize my purse. I dump it out so I can clean out the gum wrappers and old receipts and old travel ticket stubs. I slide my hand into the back zipper pocket and brush up against this folded piece of paper. What is that? I wonder. A to-do list? A shopping list? A page torn from an airline magazine? I pull the paper out and remember. The wedding day sisterly love letter. I put it back in the purse, wondering again why I can’t bring myself to throw it away.
The handwritten note seems quaint, precious in a nostalgic way. Few people write notes with pen and paper now. I write notes for my kids. My 16-year old twins are at a boarding school in Kenya and at the start of each term, I hand them a stack of numbered cards. One to open each week until they come home. I don’t know if they keep the cards. Some are silly, some are serious, some are quotes from writers, poets, historians, or people of faith I admire. I doubt they carry them around in their backpacks the way I keep this note from a stranger.
The world is scary and it is broken and every time my teenagers board a plane to another country for school, I feel the risk of it all. Not the risk of flying but the risk of loving. Of caring for someone so much that my soul lives outside my body, in the form of these humans I had a part in creating. The risk of raising them to leave me, to make their own choices, to walk through their own joys and pains. The risk of living life with the curtains open, letting light out and prying eyes in.
My small cards are a token of the protection I know I can never guarantee. They aren’t a shield or a totem or a magical stone. They are me saying: I love you. I believe in you. I have hope for the future, even in this scary and broken world.
That’s why I keep this letter in my purse. It reminds me I’m not the only person crazy or foolish enough to love someone madly and to send them away from me.
I run my fingers around the thinning paper of the letter and it brings a warm comfort, like the lights from inside an open window on a snowy Minnesota evening. It is a symbol. I’m not the only one.
Rachel Pieh Jones is a contributing blogger for Brain, Child. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.