A few years ago, I stumbled upon a never-sent letter written to a friend when we were both in college. The contents weren’t heavy. Disorganization is the most likely explanation for why it never went in the mail. I cracked the envelope and had a look.
It was a time capsule, for sure, a cringe-inducing one. It wasn’t so much the life I was reporting on as how I framed it, self-aggrandizement straining to pass as nonchalance. Fortunately, an artist acquaintance happened to be running a project— send her your shreddable documents, and eventually, she’d send you a few sheets of handmade paper in which your mulched data mingled with that of others. Truly a beautiful way to dispose of the evidence.
But what happens when neither the writer, nor the intended recipient, is the finder of the lost letter? In February 2013, some mail posted by Lt. Joseph O. Matthews, a soldier stationed at a military training facility in Jacksonville, North Carolina, found its way to Abbi Jacobson, an actress (and coloring book author!) renting an apartment on MacDougal Street in New York City. Addressed to Matthew’s wife, the cancellation mark was dated December 2, 1944.
Jacobson opened the letter, the condition of the envelope having suggested that she would not be the first to breach its contents during the 69 years it had spent wandering in the wilderness. The words inside were romantic, a young officer informing the bride he’d left back home that he’d soon be shipping out to Okinawa. Eager to pull an Amélie by reuniting the letter with those to whom it would mean the most, Jacobson enlisted the help of her friend, documentary filmmaker Todd Bieber. Together they searched records at City Hall, looking for clues. When that approach proved fruitless, they created the Lost Letter Project, a web portal that invited the public to join in the search.
An avalanche of tweets, Facebook updates, and human interest pieces ensued. In no time at all, they had their man, or rather his descendants, Lt. Matthews having passed away in 1999, crushing Jacobson’s dreams of hand delivering the letter to “a little old man and a little old lady.” (I’m willing to bet Jacobson will one day wish there was a giant blender capable of turning digital statements like how cute would that be, my god, right? I love old people into handmade paper.)
Bieber’s video reveals what became of Lt. Matthews and his wife. Even more interesting is how the letter resonates with his grown children, particularly a certain theological reference at odds with the man they thought they knew.