Gone are the letters

While home on break over the holidays, our oldest son did something that stood out as rather unusual in these digital times: He sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a letter.

With a pen.

On paper.

And then he addressed it (with some tips from his aged parents), put a stamp on it and dropped it in the mail.

How did such a thing come to pass?

I don’t know if one letter represents a trend, but according to Austin, at least, writing real, old-fashioned letters is so retro that it’s back in. He and a high school friend now in college in New York made some kind of joint decision (perhaps via text, I’m not sure) to exchange letters, and they did it. For Austin, the entire effort was a big deal: an onerous exertion that nonetheless had its charms and which might even be repeated if the young lady back East returns the favor.

“When I was your age …” I began, sounding instantly like a cross between Wilford Brimley and Methuselah … “I used to write several letters a week to my friends.”

And yes, my letters were epic: ridiculous, rambling missives largely devoid of facts and news and focused entirely on trying to funny. They featured fictional, first-person odysseys, tales of renegade Armenian rug merchants, the consumption of bizarre liquids and foodstuffs and even the occasional drawing. I was, of course, priming my creative engine for the great American novel I was soon to write, and saw letter-writing as a sort of left-brain calisthenics. Surely my friends and family would understand, even as they held my scribbles at arm’s length and said aloud: “Who is this person?”

It’d been years since I’d written or received a letter myself, but that changed when my friend, Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee, wrote in December to thank me for introducing him at a book reading last fall. It meant a lot — a lot more than an email and certainly more than a text which, in my book, is worth almost zero in terms of conveying any sort of emotion. It was also interesting to note how very familiar Fayhee’s inimitable and execrable handwriting was to me after having not seen it for years.

For the most part, those born after 1985 or so will barely know the look of their friends’ handwriting, while for us oldsters, those squiggles on the page are as instantly recognizable as a face.

There’s loss here; loss that’s not even been calculated yet. Think of all those letters of famous thinkers or dirty scoundrels that have been pored over and annotated and collected over the years. Imagine the historians of the future, trying to fill in the blanks from carefully vetted emails — the ones that weren’t deleted. No one’s much likely to ever come across a stash of old Tweets or texts, are they?

I have a collection of letters between my grandmother and grandfather dating back to the 1930s. I’ve read through some of them, back when she and my dad would be upstate while my grandfather remained back in Brooklyn. They appeared to write to each other several times a week, and the letters are full of nothing of great import while still conveying neat slices of life from a bygone era. And, since he died long before I was born, it gave me a little bit of insight into who he was.

I shan’t wag my finger and admonish everyone to resume writing their thoughts down on paper or even electronically in a format that extends beyond the average length of a Facebook post, but I will say that leaving some more tangible record of yourself somewhere, somehow, isn’t a bad idea.

It’s a nod to history, but there is one other benefit: Back when your mailbox wasn’t just a target for another piece of direct mail from some insurance agency, we actually got wonderful gifts — for free! — from friends and family members who took time to write.
And I miss that, I do.

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