My wife received a handwritten letter the other day. It was from a high school girlfriend she hadn’t seen in years, who somehow got her address from some mutual friend who had followed her trail over the years. It was a three-pager, six sides. When my wife finished, she looked down holding tight to the letter and I saw the aqueous liquid fill her eyes. Isn’t it wonderful to receive a letter.
She could hardly wait to reply, and did so forthwith. Since then, they have renewed their special relationship, but now with decades of experiences to discuss, successes and failures, travels and triumphs, regrets and insights, and of course grandchildren to talk about.
Letters and memories. In our family, there was so much to learn about our parents from the letters they left behind, a textured history of love’s labors lost and won, deeper than what we knew as children and young adults. How much would have been lost in the currents of history without letters written by Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, Abigail Adams to John Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt to FDR, Einstein to Eisenhower?
I’m better about writing to my grandchildren than I am about writing to my own children, although I do both. Both of my children are high on their executive ladders and seem to keep their heads above corporate waterlines by messaging, Zooming and FaceTiming, not that the grandchildren don’t do the same, but writing them longhand just feels less obtrusive.
My 94-year-old father-in-law, who has lived with us over these past two years, still waits every day for the mail in hopes of getting a missive from some old friend, his lost brother or some of his grand and great-grandchildren with hopes usually covered up by the latest news from the Veterans Administration or his former Iron-Workers Union. If only they knew how much joy it would bring; yet perhaps those days are gone, awash in fast, ephemeral communications leaving the “King’s English” aghast… OMG.
But let me give praise to my granddaughter Estelle. This enterprising middle schooler was captivated with her great-grandfather’s wartime experiences, his brush with death in the Pacific and the incredible happenstance of running into his brother in a Naval hospital in Hawaii. Last summer she spent hours interviewing him and turned those historical experiences and notes into a beautiful hardcover book, which has become a “bestseller” in the family. But best of all was the pleasure he had writing her in firm longhand a thank-you letter and the joy she experienced in reading it.
Given the extraordinary pandemic year we’ve been through, I encouraged my grandchildren to keep diaries, but I think they were way ahead of me on that score. One historian wrote recently that we won’t know the full cultural impact of this pandemic on American social, political and economic life for at least 20 years, maybe more. Reading about personal experiences will be so important. It’s one of the reasons I worry about messaging and emailing. I fear that this digital ink is likely to just sublimate into the ether, leaving us with a more-shallow understanding of this remarkable historical period. The historical legacy of letters and diaries has been almost axiomatic, but I fear maybe not to those in these rising generations.
So, I guess the underlying motivation for this missive is to suggest a New Year’s resolution to the readers of this column. Pick up a pen and a piece of paper. Write to an old or new friend. Feel the warmth that emanates from the pages as you write, and the satisfaction that you feel as you seal the envelope and press the stamp. That’s only half the fun of it. The other half is thinking about what that friend will think and feel as they open the letter, get the unexpected news and the anticipation of what they will write back to you. It’s way more meaningful than a fatuous digital blurb with an inane emoji.
But back to that letter my wife received the other day. In the old days, they’d say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” From the look on my wife’s face, I’d say the contemporary corollary to that might be, “A letter is worth a thousand tweets.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, an author, and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.