Recently I received a wonderful surprise in the mail. In the midst of the usual junk mail and bills, I uncovered a letter with the return address of a sorority sister with whom I hadn’t spoken in over twenty years. I was so intrigued that I opened it while I sat in the car and began skimming the four-page letter. After a moment, I decided that I wanted to stop and wait until I could find a comfortable, quiet spot so that I could savor every word of the letter that began, “Could it be that I am once again in touch with you?” The fact that Jackie had composed this heartfelt missive by hand said volumes about how glad she was to have found me.
Coincidentally, around the time of my receipt of this letter, several published articles on the topic of personal letters came to my attention. In the February 8, 2013 AJC (p. A16) in his guest column titled “Written Letter’s Joy Spans Generations,” twenty-eight-year-old Sean Berman writes that his “favorite form of communication is the written word” and reminds us that many people—lovers, friends, family members, soldiers—have known the joy of receiving correspondence addressed to them in the writer’s own hand. In her article “Getting Started” in the December 2012 copy of Alabama Living (p. 20), Marilyn Jones gives simple step-by-step directions about preparing for sending cards and letters by simply updating addresses (even if you have to send an e-mail requesting them), buying cards that can actually be displayed by the recipient, and purchasing stamps (which can now be done online). Most recently, in the March 4, 2013 AJC, Jill Vejnoska in her article “Writer Promises a ‘Letter A Day’” (p. D1), tells of Randy Osborne’s project to send a handwritten letter a day for a year to any person who sends him a request.
It is intriguing to consider what has prompted the current interest in a form of communication that many people probably consider an old-fashioned, inefficient means of correspondence. What can a person say with a pen and paper that can’t be said with a keyboard? The words are the same, right? The truth is they may not be the same if quirky spellings or characteristic grammar idiosyncrasies have been “corrected” automatically. And what about the penmanship? Like characteristic facial expressions, ways of talking, styles of walking, these handwritten efforts are unique expressions that we identify with these particular friends or relatives. They create a human connection not possible on a computer screen.
I find myself feeling fortunate to have been born early enough that letter writing was the main means of communication. As my parents and I engaged in what Emily Dickinson describes as “the bustle in a house the morning after death,” we found my grandmother’s collection of letters that my brothers and I had written to her as children. We uncovered letters that my grandfather had written as a young World War I soldier, probably on his first trip out of the state of Alabama, that began with such greetings as “Dear Mary, I am writing to you from across the waters.” When my own parents died, I retrieved the dilapidated suitcase containing over 200 letters that my dad had sent my mother when he was serving in Korea. While he was, according to his first letter after my birth, unable to call or wire after receiving the news, he was able to write to my mother about his concerns and tell her, “From now on . . . when I say I love you that goes for you and the baby.”
Obviously, we will not be returning to a time when correspondence is done primarily by hand. I myself make great use of computerized communication, but I feel pretty good when I make the effort to sit down and really “write” a card or letter to one of my elderly aunts or uncles, some of whom don’t even own a computer. It feels even better when I walk out to the mailbox and see an envelope addressed in the hand that could only belong to Aunt Helen or Aunt Frieda, read the letters and hear their voices, and know that they still find me worth the trouble.
Like my mother’s and my grandmother’s handwritten recipes, my saved letters give me a tangible way of remembering those with whom I am no longer able to converse. I wonder what we can do to help our children and grandchildren continue to appreciate the handwritten letter. Any ideas?