In Paris, an expat reflects on the joy of receiving mail from her mom thousands of miles away.
Pieces of mail received from loved ones
Credit: Sara Lieberman

My Mom loves paper. From magazine subscriptions to printing flight confirmations, hotel bookings, recipes, and Amazon receipts, she’s keeping Staples in business and publishing giants afloat. (Thankfully, she recycles.) And while she does read books on a Kindle, message via Gchat (despite still maintaining and preferring an AOL address), and watch my stories on Instagram, she also loves sending good, old-fashioned snail mail.

Since the pandemic began, grounding our nuclear family of five oceans apart — with me in Paris, my sister in Los Angeles, and my father and brother back in New York with her — my mother has been sending me mail every few weeks. Whether it costs more than the contents itself or takes ages to arrive isn’t the point. It’s almost like we’re quarantining together, experiencing this bizarre moment in time thousands of miles and a time zone away, but still connected by a few stamps and the United States Postal Service.

The USPS’s international airmail program began in 1920 with service from Seattle, Washington, to Victoria, British Columbia, and Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba. According to the USPS, it wasn’t until 1939 that transatlantic routes connected the United States with Europe, courtesy of a 29-hour Pan American Airways flight from New York to Marseilles, France, via Bermuda, the Azores, and Portugal.

While Airmail, as a separate class of mail, was technically replaced by First-Class postage (domestically in 1977 and internationally in 2007), what I receive here in Paris from my mom — or anyone from the United States, for that matter — still arrives via the friendly skies.

The first manila envelope she sent back in April took over a month to land in my boîte aux lettres, and it contained a mask handmade by a friend along with recipes from Real Simple magazine dating back to 2010. My mom, a loyal subscriber ever since the publication debuted in 2000, has a habit of letting the issues pile up in the bathroom. As one of her quarantine projects, she decided to finally go through them all. To her delight, as one of my quarantine projects, I was cooking more than pasta and omelettes with the rest of the world, so she sent me a few to follow: peanut chicken with charred scallions and rice from May 2018, carrot soup with candied almonds from November 2019, and, my favorite, Peruvian-style chicken soup with lime and cilantro from January — just before the pandemic sent the world into hibernation.

Of course, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I could look up any of these recipes online. They’re now stained with drippings of stock and splashes of sauce and folded up in one of my cookbooks, but that’s what’s so great about tactical things: They leave marks — physical and otherwise. They don't just tell stories; they show them, too.

The next few envelopes included more recipes, plus a conversion chart, so I no longer have to ask her or Siri what 350 degrees Fahrenheit is in Celsius or how many ounces are in, say, 100 grams. After that, came a few gifts: a pink pouch touting my hometown’s zip code, which I never thought I’d be so proud to represent; a lightweight leopard-print button-down, and, of course, even more recipes.

Occasionally, just a regular ole business envelope arrived, like the one containing my renewed license and credit card. I’d anticipated getting them in person, but after weeks of hoping and presuming I’d return in August for my annual New York visit, we decided it was just too risky and complicated.

So, the mail continued.

My favorite had to be the one in which she managed to stuff an actual throw pillow into an oversized envelope. During a trip to Panama in February with my dad, she picked up beautiful embroideries for my sister and me with the intention of turning them into pillow cases. While she’s always been a terrific sewer, hemming our pants at a moment’s notice or replacing a button on a whim, it took her a few months to finish these, especially since she couldn’t get assistance from my more nimble-with-a-thimble 91-year-old grandmother who’s been quarantining solo a town away, let alone figure out how to search YouTube for tutorials. But, eventually, she finished them and a colorful cushion of toucans and flowers now rests on my couch, all the way in Paris.

Truth be told, we generally only see each other once a year and haven’t yet reached a full 365 days since my last visit over Thanksgiving. Plus, I realize how very lucky I am that we’re all healthy and have the means to live apart, but stay connected via various forms. Still, restrictions beyond our own control can take a toll on our heads and our hearts.

That’s exactly why the occasional mail from my mom means so much. It’s not just the torn-out recipe pages or the craft projects or the fashion accessories. It’s the orange and pink Post-it notes she includes with little else but an “xoxo” or a smiley face. It’s the handwriting that I’d recognize in an instant. It’s knowing she touched what I now touch. She ran her fingers along this flap. Maybe she even sealed it with a kiss — something I couldn’t get in real life without a two-week quarantine anyway.

When you choose to live in a foreign country, there is no "what to do in a pandemic when you can't see your family" guidebook. There are no instructions for finding comfort after executive orders banning travel are issued. So, while she may be terrible at scanning, hasn’t quite gotten the hang of sharing posts on Facebook, and definitely doesn’t hold the phone at an admirable angle during Zoom calls, the woman sends packages like a pro and I couldn't be more thankful. Still, I look forward to the day when I myself can return to sender.