The Lost Art of Letter Writing

A few weeks ago, my husband’s aunt sent me a handwritten letter.  I will be honest here – when I first received it, I opened it up, felt the thickness of the folded up yellow sheets, and inwardly groaned.  I wanted to have enough time to sit and read the entire thing without interruption, but when was I going to find that?  I carried the letter with me for several weeks shoved in my purse or my backpack, but I never got to it during the work week.

I finally found the time Saturday afternoon, and when I finished reading the letter, I felt a huge sense of loss for all the letters I haven’t received or written since email, texting, and facebook appeared in my life.

She had written a ten page thoughtful reflection on one of my blog posts.  She questioned some of my points, reflected on others, and shared several personal stories my words had inspired.  Though nothing sentimental existed in the letter, I almost cried when I finished reading it.  It was heartfelt and addressed to me.  It was more than just a blog comment or a status update.

Two years ago, I finished a giant project compiling all of the old family photos, letters, and memorabilia that my dad and all of his ancestors had saved since the late 1800’s.  In the boxes of stuff he  gave me were stacks of envelopes rubber banded together.  There was one faded and yellowed letter from Dutch Harbor, Alaska.   My pregnant great grandmother had written to her sister in law in Idaho after following her husband north where they sought their fortune in the Yukon gold rush.  She discusses the trials of living there while he worked out at the mine site.  She also lists all the prices of the fruit that had just come in on a boat and her excitement to have some fresh fruit.

Another letter came from my great grandfather to my grandfather congratulating him on his impending marriage to my grandma (the baby born in Alaska).  There were many letters documenting my father’s life from 1956 when he left home to go to college through the mid-eighties.   My grandmother, my Dad, and my mom all saved our family’s written correspondence, so there are letters my Dad wrote to his mother as well as  her responses.  In one series of letters, my grandmother was quite upset at his lack of correspondence.  I never knew that side of her, so they were funny to read.  There are also letters my grandmother had sent home during her travels with my grandfather, and letters my sister and cousins had sent to her.

As I organized them, I laid them all out in chronological order.  These letters provide a fascinating glimpse into all of our lives as well as our nation’s history.  Some of the letters included newspaper clippings with reflections on what was happening.  They are a treasure.  My kids won’t have such tangible evidence of our daily lives.  Perhaps in this technological era they won’t miss it, but the fact that they might not even be aware of their loss saddens me more than anything.

Gary’s aunt reminded me of all of this as I read the first true letter I have received in years. I plan on responding, hopefully sooner rather than later.  I will write my letter by hand on the stationery that I’ve had but neglected for years, address the envelope, and put an actual stamp on it.   And I will save her letter, the old fashioned way, in a shoe box or a drawer.  Maybe she will save mine and someday somebody can go back and read them.  Maybe they’ll learn something, or maybe they’ll throw them away.  But either way, a little piece of me and a little piece of her will be on an actual piece of paper somewhere and not a hard drive.  I like that idea.