Ask Amy: Old Love Letters Don't Age Well
To whom do they belong: the writer or the receiver?
Dear Amy: I am 68 years old (divorced, with two grown children and two grandchildren.) My former college boyfriend (from 1972-1975) is now 78 years old and, although still ambulatory, is in poor health requiring 24-hour professional care. No one knows how much longer he will live.
He has kept all my old (45 years old!) love letters. I have asked him repeatedly to return these letters to me, but he has refused.
He never married, nor has he ever had a live-in girlfriend. Now, when he dies, his niece (he has no children) will be the most likely person to sort through his personal effects.
These letters are, as you might expect, of a highly personal nature. They should not be read by anyone else. I have tried to appeal to his better nature and sense of regard for our former friendship, but to no avail.
I’m not losing sleep over this, but if you can think of the right words to say to him to convey how important it is to me to have those letters back, I would be grateful.
— Never Write Anything You Wouldn’t Want Published
Dear Never Write Anything, etc.: My understanding is that when you send a letter to someone, they own the (physical) letter: the paper and ink. You own the right to publish (or possibly sue someone else for publishing) the contents of the letter. So — your former squeeze’s heirs might be able to sell these letters at auction, or display them in a museum, but they could not publish the contents of the letters.
But that’s not really your question (I just thought it was interesting).
If you’re NOT losing sleep over this, then continue not losing sleep. That is definitely the way to go.
It sounds as if you have asked for these letters, repeatedly. So — stop asking.
I think you should send him one more note. Tell him you are very sorry that he is ailing. Remind him of a happy memory you two shared. Thank him for whatever experiences you enjoyed together (“Remember when I dragged you to that Jackson Browne concert?”), and don’t mention the letters at all.
He may respond to your kindness by doing the one thing you’ve asked him to do — and return these ancient letters to you — or you may end up dealing with his niece down the road.
In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068
© 2020 by Amy Dickinson