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The Value of Old-Fashioned Letters in a Temporary Society

Nothing says love like a letter

row of mailboxes

Careers and friendship chronicled in letters

“My heart still palpitates every time I see one of those cute, but heartless, mail jeeps. The mailman probably thought I was in love with him from the calf eyes I made when he drove up….No one but a writer can understand the significance of the daily mail.”

So quipped Terri, my friend the novelist, whose presence has enriched my life for decades and whose correspondence I’ve enjoyed for years. In the days before email, when we submitted queries and manuscripts by mail, when we waited every day for responses from publishers and magazine editors, we wrote to each other. We corresponded for more than a decade because we lived in different towns. In the resulting thick stack of pages, we chronicled our projects, our dreams, and our lives. We were both writers, expressing ourselves the only way we could.

Through those letters, we built a lasting friendship. Reading them now, I can see how far we’ve both come, how hard we’ve worked, and how much our lives have changed. I remember much of what I would have forgotten without that written record.

A book exists in those file folders full of letters…the history of two careers is embedded in the correspondence between a couple of young, hopeful, aspiring writers. (Terri made it as an extremely successful historical romance author. Me? I’m still waiting for full-blown success to kick in!)

Today, in a society where communication is a constant stream of quick texts and instant messages, I fear that our personal stories and much of our history will be lost in the cyber vortex of deleted messages and crashed computers.

Nothing means more than the permanence, eloquence, and tangibility of a letter.

Family history captured in words

My love affair with letters started as a young girl when my dad read a letter to me that his family had handed down, generation to generation. Written by a soldier named W.K. Jordan during the 1812 war, the letter is addressed to Jordan’s wife, Betsy, and includes the story of his capture, his captain’s death, and his longing for his family. Jordan writes,

“I had to surrender myself to four damned yellow Indians,” and he goes on to describe what they did to his captain, Billy Wells: “…cut off his head and stuck it on a pole while the others took out his heart and divided it among the chiefs, and they ate it raw.”

Eventually, my ancestor escaped and wrote Betsy:

“I have two letters of yours and some of the soft hair of your head, some in plaid around my neck. …Tell me how you are, and how the children are, and for God’s sake, send Mountford to school…So I conclude with my best respects to you till death, or till I see you…”

He never returned, dying of pneumonia.

What an interesting piece of family history that would have been lost had it not been for that long-cherished letter handed down through generations of the Johnson family.

The voice of a loved one preserved on paper

In the time before email and computers, Daddy was the ultimate letter writer. He had been a clerk in the Navy and would often wake up in the middle of the night. Rather than lay in bed sleepless, he’d get up and pound out letters to family and friends on an old manual typewriter. He even typed letters with carbon paper so he could send one newsy letter to each of his daughters and our families.

I appreciated his letters then, but now, they are PRICELESS.

Last week was the fifth anniversary of Daddy’s death, but I can read his letters and hear him now. His voice is immortalized in his words, his personality just as vibrant as if he were still living and laughing right beside me. Daddy’s love of gardening and eating, and his ability to laugh at himself, is displayed in the simple words of just one of his letters.

“Just wanted you to know that last night I grilled pork chops out back on the grill you gave us. Thank you. I had kale out of my garden and macaroni. When I was a kid I wouldn’t have touched kale with a 10-foot-pole, but now this old goat really likes it. In re-reading this paragraph, I’d like to clarify.
I did not grow the macaroni in my garden. It won’t grow in Indiana. Also,my roses are beautiful. If you were here, I’d give you a bouquet.”

The essence of Daddy is stored in that paragraph, and long after he’s gone, his voice rings true, preserved like a crisp pickle in the paper and ink of the letters he wrote.

If that letter had been electronic, stored in the days before “cloud” storage on one of my dozens of computers over the years, I wouldn’t be able to hear him anymore.

Today, we have e-mail, scans, texts, and video conferencing, but nothing compares to a letter that has weight and permanence. My friend, Terri, once commented that we were “just hands clasping briefly in this ever-changing world through the postal service.”

We can still be souls clasping hands through the mail, and in doing so, we can track the trajectory of our lives, preserve bits of history that might be forgotten, and immortalize the personalities of the people we love.

Ron Watson, a Kentucky poet I used to know, expressed both the lack of letters — and the need for letters — best:

“Yes, I’ve come to know the silence well, and the wordless dread of the postman’s empty hands, the wash of blue his back bears across the yard to the neighbor’s box.”

Write soon. As John Donne says, “More than kisses, sir, letters mingle souls.”

fountain pen writing a letter

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