Cour­tesy of the author; Pana­ma Hats on their way through the Cule­bra Cut to Maduro’s Sou­venir Store.”

I’d like to talk to you about let­ters. I am old. I am try­ing here for short­hand. The word old” defines me as hav­ing lived in times when peo­ple com­mu­ni­cat­ed over long dis­tances with pen on paper and on man­u­al type­writ­ers: Olivet­tis, Roy­als, and Selectrics with the sil­ver type­ball. I have hand-drawn notes I made for my moth­er and father (mami and papi) for birth­days and hos­pi­tal stays, sweet girl that I was, ador­ing my moth­er when she left home for sojourns in psy­chi­atric insti­tu­tions in the Unit­ed States — twice in my child­hood. I wrote her let­ters then, miss­ing her, sign­ing te adoro,” try­ing to express an amor­phous feel­ing, not believ­ing it was reciprocated.

Author’s Moth­er 

I’ve writ­ten a mem­oir about her — my need to love her, and the dis­tances I had to cross to be close to a woman trou­bled with over­whelm­ing anx­i­ety that left lit­tle room for me, or my sis­ter and broth­ers. It is set in Pana­ma and in the U.S. after I leave for school in my teens.

I have a box — a medi­um sized card­board box filled with let­ters writ­ten in untidy long­hand that I received while in school. I kept them all. They land­ed in my mother’s apart­ment in Pana­ma for safe­keep­ing. A mother’s sto­ry — her child’s belong­ings saved — though my stamp col­lec­tion was lost.

Author’s Aunt in tra­di­tion­al Pana­man­ian Pollera 

My mem­oir, At the Nar­row Waist of the World, relies on my own vivid mem­o­ries and a few ten­der sto­ries from my sib­lings via long-dis­tance phone calls. I read his­to­ries and old news­pa­per accounts about my sprawl­ing fam­i­ly — Span­ish-Por­tuguese Jews who estab­lished them­selves in Pana­ma in the mid 1800s. I spoke with her long-time psy­chi­a­trist. I also relied on let­ters I dis­cov­ered in that card­board box.

When I trav­eled to the U.S. for school in my sopho­more year of high school, armed with coins, I com­mu­ni­cat­ed with my fam­i­ly while stand­ing at pub­lic phone booths with doors and by way of let­ters on blue par avion paper, light as feath­ers. I report­ed my news, con­vey­ing my nos­tal­gia, hold­ing on to the life­line of my very large, extend­ed fam­i­ly who were close-knit with­in a Catholic soci­ety that also cel­e­brat­ed fam­i­ly. There were so many firsts in those first years in the U.S. — field hock­ey, The Scar­let Let­ter, snow. I vis­it­ed the Jew­ish home of my new suite mate on my very first Thanks­giv­ing and heard Jew­ish prayers at the table. I felt a deep con­nec­tion and under­stood that I was not alien in a for­eign land. I dis­cov­ered let­ters from tías and tíos, her­manos, pri­mos, boyfriends, my abuela — even let­ters from mami who behaved like a respon­si­ble par­ent, car­ing that I’d have warm enough clothes in the igloo of the Amer­i­can Northeast.

I vis­it­ed the Jew­ish home of my new suite mate on my very first Thanks­giv­ing and heard Jew­ish prayers at the table. I felt a deep con­nec­tion and under­stood that I was not alien in a for­eign land.

When I expe­ri­enced depres­sion in my last year of high school and first years of col­lege, let­ter writ­ing — in the rare times I did it — was a life­line to feel­ings. I still have some of the let­ters — did I nev­er mail them?

I found the brown, card­board box when look­ing for a batch of let­ters that I knew I had, let­ters papi wrote to mami when she was a patient in the Insti­tute for Liv­ing in Con­necti­cut. These were the last of many that he wrote to her before he died, which came back home with mami when she returned to us. I was eleven. My father had been an insur­ance man, a read­er, and an intro­vert. My whole atti­tude towards life is chang­ing,” he wrote. I don’t know what it is. While before I held my feel­ings in, now I sur­prise myself by com­ing out with it. I feel more con­fi­dence, my men­tal abil­i­ty, my com­plex­es. I can sell ice to the Eski­mos! Will be a big shot before long if I keep this up.”

This let­ter was mailed in August. He died in Octo­ber. The poignan­cy still breaks my heart.

A let­ter from my grand­moth­er asked why my moth­er still loved the Amer­i­can man from the Canal Zone that she mar­ried after my father passed away. A man who beat her when he was drunk. Did I know why mami still loved him?

Let­ters sharp­en the fea­tures of indi­vid­u­als in my fam­i­ly and record the pow­er that com­mu­ni­ty can have in sus­tain­ing us. I see my grand­moth­er, her clear blue eyes. She is look­ing up into my face, beg­ging me to explain her own trou­bled heart.

Tablet from author’s tem­ple Kol Shearith Israel, includ­ing author’s great grand­moth­er Juli­ta Lin­do Cardoze 

I see my grand­moth­er, her clear blue eyes. She is look­ing up into my face, beg­ging me to explain her own trou­bled heart.

In my senior year of high school, I wrote to one of my more seri­ous tios. I can’t get through a kind of bar­ri­er that I put up or some­body puts up. Am I strange?” I asked. Is it wrong to like to be alone most of the time?” This was the uncle who always made the Minyan at our tem­ple and con­duct­ed ser­vices with oth­er tios year after year in the absence of a rabbi.

I found his response in the box of trea­sures. Since your father died, I have hoped to be able to fill that role for you, and now you have giv­en me the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Both tia Con­nie and I love you as much as we do our chil­dren. So as part of this fam­i­ly I’ll talk to you as I would to them.” He was try­ing to lift me up dur­ing those con­fus­ing years.

Author with hus­band and grand nieces in Panama

Let­ters are arti­facts of my past. In those records I dis­cov­er, so many years lat­er, who I was as a girl, and the dynam­ics of family.

I won­der if the writ­ing of mem­oir is not anoth­er form of let­ter writ­ing — expos­ing the pre­cise image and feel­ing, sort­ing out the feel­ings, cel­e­brat­ing them. This is what dri­ves us and we should not be ashamed.

Mar­lena Maduro Baraf has a knack for rais­ing orchids. She immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States from her native Pana­ma, and her writ­ing is col­ored by this dual iden­ti­ty. She has been inter­view­ing Lati­nos from all walks of life for a series of arti­cles titled Soy/​Somos, or I Am/​We Are.” At the Nar­row Waist of the World, chap­ters of which have been excerpt­ed in Lumi­na, Street­light Mag­a­zine, Blue Lyra Review, and the Westch­ester Review, is her first pub­lished memoir.