My mother was a letter writer. Mostly newsy little handwritten notes of a page or two. Her missives often included a clipping from an advice column, a positive quote, a prayer or snapshot, and a few gentle paragraphs of wit and encouragement. She always signed them, “Love, Mom.”
A popular lament these days is that no one writes letters anymore. When was the last time you received a letter — an actual letter with a stamp and postmark from someone close? The effect of such a gift in your mailbox is stirring.
The obvious benefits of digital technology not withstanding, there’s just something remarkable in the feel of a few crisp pages in your hands along with the knowledge that considerable forethought and care went into creating them for you.
From my experience, it comes down to this — an email is grabbing a hot dog from a street vendor, whereas a personal letter is a sumptuous home cooked meal. Either one meets a person’s needs, but which will you really savor? I don’t know anyone who sits curled up on a rainy Sunday afternoon re-reading old e-mails.
But now that mom is gone, on the odd weekend I’ll often pour over her old letters and postcards. Some of them still carry the faint scent of her perfume or a slight smear of lipstick where she sealed the envelope. A letter is a tactile, tangible, aromatic entity. It’s considerably more than the essence of the person not present — it’s a comradely whisper, the crystallization of an emotional expression.
I have tried to follow my mother’s example with mixed success. The last few years it’s become important for me to try writing more real letters to those I hold dear. There is much catching up to do.
In 2008 my world shifted radically. I discovered I had a 32-year-old daughter I’d never known about. When she was 13 her mother had told her about me and for the next 19 years she wondered who and where I was. When she finally found me (on the internet by the way) it was a shock and a blessing for both of us. Immediate connection, same eyes, same face, exact same sense of humor.
In the weeks before I flew from California to Kansas to meet her for the first time, I thought about what it must have been like for her all those years. For our first meeting I wanted to make a gesture that would mean something to her. I gave her a polished wooden box. With 32 birthday cards inside.
In the weeks leading up to our meeting, every day I had written cards for all the birthdays I had missed. In each one I wrote what I imagined she might have wished at that time to hear from a father. She told me that she reads them every so often and now whenever I send a new letter or card she adds it to the box.
I often think of the gift my mother left me in those writings of hers and I take great comfort in Emily Dickenson’s assertion that a letter is a tiny bit of immortality.
While I take ease in a digital world, I find my real comfort in a simple paper letter from a friend — stamp, envelope and all. Language is the way in which we reach out. It is the essence of how we as people connect with one another. But it’s the device of our expression that defines its permanence. The fine English poet W.H. Auden struck the true emotional center of it when he set down in ink…
“And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart.
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”