Ink

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.”

Image.handwritten-letter

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?”

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19 thoughts on “Ink

  1. I cant remember the last time i got a handwritten letter in the post. when I was young, I had many friends living far away and I wrote and received letters almost every day. Emails are just not the same 😦

  2. What a lovely post. I’m always intending to write more letters again and never seem to get around to it. This year, I have an added incentive though as I want to do a course as preparation for an exam which involves three two-hour written papers. I haven’t written that much in the nearly twenty years since I left college. And I decided that if I’m going to spend an hour writing every day (that’s the plan anyway), it may as well be spent writing actual letters to people and not just copying text out of a book or something like that. I still have every letter I’ve ever received, from the year I was nine and a cousin and I decided to be pen-pals in-between summers, from the first year I lived away from home and everything since. Letters on fancy stationery, letters on plain notebook paper, even some written on the back of menus. I truly love my box of letters and although I do read through old emails from time to time, it really isn’t the same thing.

  3. This post really touched me, Michael. My mother-in-law used to do the same thing, send us letters with clippings. I too have old letters from my Mom that I pull out and read now and then, often through tears because I miss her. I try to do the same with my children, especially those who have moved away. Recently I spent several hours trying to jot some parting thoughts to my son as he prepares to get married and I sent a similar letter to my future daughter-in-law. I wrote that I hoped that I hoped it would be a love letter of sorts welcoming her into the family, one I hope would go into her own memory box to be perhaps revisited someday when I am no longer here.

    I am glad you were able to reconnect with your daughter after all these years and that it seems like it has been a redeeming experience for the both of you. Thanks for another beautiful post. God bless, Maria from Delight Directed Living

  4. Wonderful post, and it’s so true that we really miss something when we don’t write real letters anymore. I love the “comradly whisper”, well, actually I simply love this entire blog post – thank you!

    • I’m five shades of fuchsia right now after seeing your comment above. Typically people aren’t this nice unless they’re selling insurance or trying to borrow money. Since you’re clearly neither of those types of charlatan, I can only presume sincerity and take your gracious compliment to heart. You’re a pip, you are. Thank you, and again thank you.

  5. I mentioned this to my son one day and he started writing me little notes. How sweet is that? Your comparison between email and hot dogs is perfect. There’s something about taking a letter in your hand and setting aside a few moments to savor the personal script and the ideas they convey that makes the communication very special.

    Thanks for stopping in at The Write Game to say hello. I appreciated the visit and it’s great to find your blog.

  6. I so enjoyed reading this post! It hasn’t been that long since I’ve gotten a letter in the mail actually and when I do It makes me feel exctited and appreciated! I agree receiving a personal letter is very satisfying incomparison to an email; however i do like receiving emails!

    Yes we do eventually delete our emails and dump info into trash cans where we can hold on to personal letters forever!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Your post is food for thought!

  7. Michael,

    What a beautiful post! That was a great analogy about emil being like a hot dog and a letter like a home-cooked meal. Sadly, we have gotten away from letters. My grandmother would have never thought about sending an email – ever. Our family are not big letter writers either, which is shame, but the older folks do still send out birthday and Christmas cards.

    You’re a wonderful writer.

    Sunni

    http://sunni-survivinglife.blogspot.com/

  8. I used to love being given stationery for Christmas or birthdays – pretty notelets and envelopes, thick coloured sheets from Paperchase with mis-matched envelopes – I miss all that! Emails are so instant and cost nothing – whereas the Post Office keeps on putting up the price of those stamps… but as you’ve pointed out, letters and cards can be kept and can say so much more because they are infinitely more personal. I don’t like to think of a future where my kids or grandkids (eventually!) don’t have a sample of my handwriting in a letter. I’m off to buy some stationery this afternoon. Lovely about your daughter, too. And the cards were a wonderful idea 🙂

    • Bel, your comments are so sweet. So happy my post inspired you. Postage will always rise, but we use stamps so rarely now the expense ends up being insignificant. What’s it worth to you and your children, after all, to have a letter sent? Think of the stamp as wrapping paper. Thank you so much for stopping by. So nice to meet you.

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