Wednesday, October 20, 2010


“Another letter from your friend!” the smiling postmistress shouts at me while holding aloft an oversize mailing envelope, every square inch of whose outer surface is covered with bold hand writing. This same scenario will repeat itself every three or four weeks, to the smiles and hard-to-hide delight of other patrons of our small-town post office. What they don’t know is that when, at home, I open the colorful envelope, I will find even more bold black felt-pen-scrawled messages inside, both in the form of note papers, and along the margins of random enclosures. Every line and comment will reflect the ebullient love-for-life and well wishes of a senior lady who listens faithfully to my radio program from the family home to which she is largely confined. Not only are her colorful missives a pleasure to receive, but a reminder of a passing generation for whom letter-writing was an everyday way of life.
I most often picture memories of my own mother sitting happily in her favorite corner chair, her reading glasses perched on her nose, and her fountain pen poised over a pad of her best writing paper. Beside her on an end table would be stacks of correspondence from a lifetime of friends just waiting to be re-read, considered again and then thoughtfully responded to. Over an era pockmarked by three wars, the people I loved never allowed time or distance to get in the way of “staying in touch”. What’s more, no letter was “fired off” hurriedly or without seriously answering questions posed in past correspondence. Letter-writing was not a chore to be attended to, but a social responsibility which deserved respect and had its own set of ethical guidelines; every elementary school student was taught and practiced those basic skills.
During World War II, no one had to remind me to make the daily run to the post office, and my heart always skipped a beat when I would catch a glimpse of those red-white-and-blue air mail envelopes waiting behind the glass window. A brother in the South Pacific, another in the Central Pacific, cousins and uncles in Europe and England and in places they weren’t allowed to tell us about; and I would hurry home on flying feet.
Then in my own faraway battleground, I would stand in that circle of anxious buddies waiting for my name to be called from the tailgate of a military 6X6 in that magic moment known as “mail call”, sometimes wondering just which guy would receive a “Dear John” today, or better yet, who might get a box of chocolate chip cookies to share.
One of my favorite writers – Arthur Gordon – tells of an important discovery he made at the time he had to clean out the old Georgia home in which his family had lived for 150 years. He had long marveled at how his ancestors had been able to survive with such grace the bad times which had befallen them following the South’s defeat in the Civil War, when they had lost almost everything and everyone dear to them. In an old chest, he found the letters they had written to each other during those dark days: “have I told you how much you mean to me” he read, or “the way you live has always been an inspiration to others” he quoted. Over and over he would see the words of encouragement and appreciation with which they gifted each other in their letters: “you are an important part of my life, and we all appreciate you so much”. Constantly and sincerely those letters underlined a common theme: “have I mentioned to you how much I love you!”
High on a closet shelf sits a box of business correspondence addressed to my maternal great grandfather in the 1880s and 1890s, the formal pen strokes reflecting an elegant style and a practiced hand. While their content deals with the mundane issues of land transfers, monies owed and paid, and the details of trust agreements, I find something reassuringly honest and comforting in holding them in my hands and revisiting the stories they tell about people I never met, and who lived more than a century ago.
Sitting here in the company of computers, printers, FAX machine, and wondrous technology which is already obsolete, I take refuge in a file cabinet full of hand-written notes and letters whose very touch still have the power to connect me with a world “face book”, “twitter” and “text-messaging” can never quite replace. And I wonder if we have lost something at the heart of human communication.

A faded 1918 letter from the trenches of France, family correspondence date-marked 1880, and an envelope which crossed the country on the first transcontinental airmail flight all join a collection of remembrances written by human hands, and safe from the hazards of “delete” buttons and “e-viruses”.

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