Throughout the summer, my friends and I have been lamenting the loss of real communication that has taken place within on the past fifteen years or so, when everyone, it seems, had email. One day, a group of relatives decided to have a lunch at my aunts home, with the theme of bringing along their favorite letter from the days when people actually wrote to each other, placed a stamp in the corner and mailed it.
On that lovely spring day, we gathered at my aunts home, which our family had owned for five generations. We had a simple lunch of finer sandwiches, chips and home-made brownies, all of us anxious to bring out the letters we had brought.
My aunt, being the hostess, got to show her keepsake first. She pulled out an old letter from her cousin, telling of her vacation to the Grand canyon. The letter was two folded, yellowed pages, filled with eloquently written descriptions of the places they had stopped and taken photographs. She promised to show her friend the pictures she had taken after she had sent them off to be developed.
An elderly cousin pulled a postcard out of her purse she said had been handed down for generations. It has a ripped edge surrounding a matte-type photo of the Empire State Building. On the back was a description of the Empire State Buildings location and its history in tiny scripted type. To the left was a short note saying simply, “Having a marvelous time. I’ve never seen such tall buildings. Wish you were here!” It was signed, “Your cousin, Edith” and held a faded one cent stamp at its top edge.
I believe the letter I brought was the favorite. My great-great grandfather had written it to his wife when he was a prisoner-of-war. It was dated November 20, 1963. He was a Captain in the North Carolina 62nd Battalion of Confederate Troop and was being held at the Officers prison in Sandusky Bay, Ohio. I had been given the letter by a cousin when he found out I was majoring in History in college.
The script was even and neatly written, The ink had faded to a pale brown. His grammar and writing skill were amazing. I never realized that men were taught to write with such style. It was difficult to fight the tears when he asked about a baby he had never met, mentioned to his “most loving and patient wife” to be sure and tell her sister that “no one else had died since he had last written.”. Everyone took a deep breath as I read the line where he said, with hope, “that they had heard negotiations had been going well and that with luck, the war be over soon and he and the other prisoners could return home” His writing became a big smaller as he said he was limited to one page.
If we had not already been silenced by his words, the salutation would have done the job. “All of my love from an absent husband.” It said, with initials and last name ending the letter.
“That was more than two and a half years before he was released.” I reminded my relatives. I brought out a photograph of he and his wife in their later years and passed it around.
One of my aunts sighed as she said, “It’s shame that writing letters has gone out of style. I can imagine how tasteless and tacky a e-mail would have been.”
A cousin laughed and reminded us that it might have been a month before the letter made it through enemy territory and miraculously got home to the mountains of North Carolina.
One of the older ladies at our dinner held the photograph in her hand. “My mother told me he had to walk a lot of the way home. There weren’t many trains in the rural south in those days.”
I was surprised to hear one of the younger cousins speak up. She was holding a baby and was on maternity leave from her teaching job at the local high school. “I don’t think letter writing will ever go out of style.” she said. We heard last week that children are once again being made to know how to write in cursive by fourth grade and that they would be required to write an essay in longhand in middle school.”
My aunt, who had hosted the event smiled. “Imagine,” she said, “what might have happened to our constitution, to the letters and speeches of Abraham Lincoln, or the hymns sung in churches a hundred and fifty years ago if the equipment to play them had become outdated, or the writers had felt that their words would never be lost on such modern equipment as the internet!”
Another lady laughed, “My whole hard drive burned out last week, I lost every document I had not printed or saved on some other kind of contraption.”
“I have an idea!” my aunt sang out, nearly jumping from her chair. “Let’s start a letter writing society.” “When we go on a trip or vacation, attend a special event or reunion, we have to write a real letter to at least one of the people in our group!”
At first everyone looked around, a little dread in their eyes. Then the young teacher pulled out a tablet and said, “Let’s start collecting names right now. Every body here should try to add three people to our list, and for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to try to get men on the list.” Whoever gets the most new members will be honorary guest at our next meeting!”
“Next meeting?” I said, “When is our next meeting?”
“How about the last Thursday in each month?” said my aunt. We can take turns being hostesses and everyone can bring a favorite dish.”
“I feel like I have woken up in the 1950’s.”smiled my elderly cousin. I can’t wait to go home and write my first letter-it will be about this wonderful meeting!”
“You know,” I though to myself as I put my album and letters in the car. “People like to communicate, to tell the stories of their lives, see the lovely script of a handwritten letter.” “Having a “like” on your blog will never have the same feeling as writing a letter to someone we actually know about an even that really matters to the reader.
With all my heart I believe the art of writing a letter will not only come back, it will thrive as we tire of hurried, impersonal and lonely lives that computers have brought us to. It may have a slow start, bu I imagine getting a handwritten letter out of the mailbox on a cold winter day will hold the same joy to my great-grandchild as it did to my great-grandmother!