Return to sender: a languishing letter launched my literary career – Patricia Perry Donovan

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By Patricia Perry Donovan

Some letters can be life-altering, like the heartfelt missive the fictional Connie Sterling pens in my second novel, At Wave’s End. In a note to innkeeper Maeve Calhoun, Connie pitches herself as the perfect candidate to run Maeve’s coastal bed and breakfast, The Mermaid’s Purse, once Maeve retires. Connie’s letter sets off a chain of events that not only transforms a community but also rewrites Connie’s relationship with her adult daughter Faith.

But what if Connie’s letter had fallen into the wrong hands, or worse, been waylaid? Life might have been very different for the residents of Wave’s End.

I know well the consequences of intercepted correspondence. When I was twelve, my class visited the United Nations in New York City. Awestruck by our multilingual tour guide, I decided right then to one day work at the U.N. as a translator. After the visit, I composed a thoughtful letter to the U.N. requesting advice on how to prepare for that goal.

To this day, I can still picture the stationery I used: a long, narrow sheet of saffron paper that I rolled up and sealed inside its distinctive cardboard mailing tube, then plugged with two fuchsia plastic caps. (The stationery came in a paint can. It was the seventies, after all.) How my letter would stand out at the U.N., I thought as I handed the tube to my mother to mail.

Weeks passed, then months, without a response. Undeterred, I remained focused on my aspirations, studying French and Spanish in high school, and then pursuing a dual language major in college. During freshman year, however, my Spanish professor observed that I spoke the language with a French accent. Crushed by this slight, I impulsively abandoned the career path I had set for myself as a teen and embraced journalism and communications instead.

I never felt as though I were settling, because this career pivot allowed me to forge a living pursuing another of my passions: writing.

Fast-forward twenty years or so, when, after various stints as a reporter, corporate communicator, technical writer, and managing editor, I returned to my parents’ home to help them downsize. My mother greeted me with a box of memorabilia from my childhood, which I eagerly began to pore over.

Imagine my chagrin when I discovered, buried beneath the yellowed art projects and term papers of my youth, that distinctive cardboard tube, unstamped and addressed to the U.N. in my loopy adolescent scrawl. Seizing the tube, I waved it at my mother.

“Why didn’t you ever mail this?” I asked.

“Because I thought it was so adorable that I wanted to save it and show it to you when you were an adult.”

Peeved, I sat back and glared at her. But because I was already a mother to two young daughters at that point and hoarding a fair amount of memorabilia for each, this logic somehow made sense. And while her actions may have cost me an illustrious United Nations career, there’s a happy postscript.

Life kindly intervened to provide a respectable substitute. In the nineties, my husband’s company transferred our family to Lyon, France, where I spent six blissful years perfecting my adopted tongue. Eventually, my French tutor there bestowed upon me her highest compliment, proclaiming my speech “sans accent” (that is, without an American accent).

And while I’ll always wonder how I might have fared at the United Nations, I’m fairly certain of one thing: if my mother had mailed that letter, I might never have taken my writing to the next level and penned not one novel, but two. In a roundabout way, my mother is responsible for this second-act success. So thanks, Mom, for launching my literary career.

P.S. I still love you, Mom, but these days, I’ll mail my own letters, thank you very much!

Patricia Perry Donovan is an American journalist and the author of two novels, Deliver Her and At Wave’s End (both Lake Union). Her fiction has appeared in Gravel Literary, Flash Fiction Magazine and in other literary journals. The mother of two grown daughters, she lives at the Jersey Shore with her husband and their Yorkie, Diesel.

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