I nodded my head in agreement as I read the letter in the local newspaper by a man mourning the departure of handwritten letters from our culture. At his mother’s death, he had found among her effects a box of mementos, including a letter written by his father to her years ago which she had treasured to her dying day.
I, too, mourn the departure of handwritten letters, not for business matters, or day-to-day concerns, but for what goes on in the spirit.
Years ago, when my parents were living, it was their custom to place letters we children had written to them in the basket on the coffee table for any of us who were visiting to read. Mother and Dad also read these letters again and again, squeezing all possible meaning out of them. They were their lifeline to the family. I wrote my parents once a week for years, prompting Dad to write, “You are the best letter writer.” By then I was typing the letters, however, to make it easier for them to read.
Mother never wrote many letters. Her excuse was that Dad had so few things to do in his retirement, she left this task to him, so he sent off short missives to each child when he had some news. Sometimes they were not more than twenty words, but they were his way of keeping the family connected. “Jack and Joyce visited us. Mother made green bean soup for dinner.” He made sure his end of the connection was intact.
When he wrote letters to Mother’s relatives in the Soviet Union, they complained that his letters were too short. Letters to a foreign country, far away, should be long, very long. I have a file of his longer letters to me in which he discussed a topic he was concerned about, but they were the exception rather than the rule.
I read recently that some schools are discontinuing teaching cursive writing, a useless skill in a computerized age. I grieve, for I recall when I worked in my father’s store in the 1930s watching illiterate immigrants from Slavic countries bring a check to him and endorse it with an X, above which Dad would write “His sign” and sign his own name.
What a tragedy when someone cannot read or write even their own name. What a tragedy when someone finds writing (or typing) more than a sentence a chore.
A letter is an artifact that I can pick up in my hands and touch with more than just my eyes. A letter is something I can hang on to. Mother kept all my letters to her. As I reread them I cringe as I see the person I once was but I also utter a “bravo” to some bold words and accounts of acts. How will today’s technology preserve our computerized letters in easily accessible form? I already have a box of tapes, discs, and so forth not accessible to me on this computer. Are they lost forever?
My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky. My heart leaps up when I receive a handwritten note or letter, handwritten or typed. It is communication with a human being.
I grew up with coal and wood stoves, hand-powered washers, manual typewriters, and radios with static reception. We melted snow for water in winter and hauled it from the well in summer. I would not want to return to any of this. I appreciate modern appliances and the swifter methods of communication. On Christmas Day I received greetings from a friend in India and a relative in Moscow. But the faster I run to keep up with modern technology, the farther it moves ahead of me. Yet I believe that staying in touch is most important in any form. Here's to more letters in the New Year!