The Lost Art of Letter Writing
Updated: Oct 7, 2018
Well, first the good news: nobody gets a Dear John or Dear Jane letter anymore. The bad news is fewer and fewer people are sending handwritten love letters, poems, thank you notes, birthday cards and Christmas greetings. There are no “tangible thoughts” that can be tucked away lovingly in boxes of memorabilia, waiting to be reread on blue days.
This notion occurred to me as I was cleaning closets and uncovered my own boxes of mementos. (Yes, I keep every piece of mail I receive from those near and dear to me.)
Carefully composed letters, like those once sent by Pony Express and later by snail-mail, have all been replaced by short, instant messages and emails. We now live with an immediate-gratification mentality and communicate through abridged written interactions of ridiculous acronyms, IMHO (in my humble opinion).
People can now block whoever they don’t want to hear from, or “ghost” whoever they decide to toss guiltlessly out of their lives. Ouch. And it can all be done in the millisecond stroke of one finger on an unbiased, emotionless keyboard or cell phone, with no explanation whatsoever to whomever gets kicked to the curb.
Easily misinterpreted texts have conveniently replaced phone calls; emojis have replaced honest facial expressions and “arm chair warriors” can now sit cowardly behind a computer in the comfort of their own homes and verbally assassinate anyone they choose, instead of courageously looking their subject in the eye and saying what’s on their minds. It’s easy to be brave when there’s no chance of a fair rebuttal.
My memory boxes
I’m sentimental and tend to keep things way past their need to be kept. (I just now parted with my kids report cards and I still have some of mine!) I slip my collection of important items into keepsake boxes and take them out to reminisce from time to time.
Tucked away in these special boxes are all sorts of goodies. Postcards penned by my great-uncle August Pfundt, who served in WWI, are some of my favorites. These were sent by him to family members while he was stationed overseas. What I particularly noticed about the one pictured below is that text states he is concerned that his cousin Gus may have forgotten him.
Sadly, I wonder how many great-nieces will someday be able to cherish handwritten postcards from those currently serving our country. Are “letters from home” still sent via mail service? Or will today’s instant-communication-via-cyber-world allow for an accidental “Delete,” erasing a message that an anxious loved one may have waited days or weeks to hear or read. Will there be any written accounts remaining, left to be read again and again, a lifetime later?
Underneath all of the pictures, cards and letters is my dad’s prayer book which is, for the most part, written in German. It is my understanding that each soldier was given a handwritten book of prayers prior to being deployed, composed by either a family member or a member of the church. These notebooks, along with pocket Bibles*, were trusted to keep their son, brother, nephew or friend safe during their tour of duty.
I have possession of my late-uncle Edwin’s weather diaries. For decades, he kept careful written accounts of wind, rain, temperature and cloud conditions. It was important to him and because of his unusual record-keeping ritual, I can tell you what the weather was like in Burton, Texas on any day, of any year, with great accuracy, should you be interested. Useless? Perhaps. But life was simpler back then and my guess is that Edwin probably found down-to-earth pleasure in comparing his results against the predictions of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. I take comfort in that fact, somehow.
In a separate box are my mother’s handwritten recipes. While reading them, I realized that all of my personal favorite recipes are now in e-folders that could be lost forever, because of one quick computer glitch. And yet, the thought of handwriting each one for posterity’s sake seems nearly impossible.
Journals, diaries, recipes and notebooks have all taken a back seat to computer files. I wonder what happens to all of those thoughts, factoids and memories 50 years from now?
A word about books and cards
As a writer, I have great respect for the authors of long ago, sitting tirelessly by candlelight with quill and ink, literally writing their classics. While computers certainly do not lessen the value of today’s best sellers, it does put into perspective the painstaking ways that books came to be before the days of electronic word processing. I’m creating this post with state-of-the-art technology that will correct for me mistakes that I might have otherwise missed. If I don’t like a paragraph, poof! Gone, with one click. (The flip-side of that “Poof!”, however, is not so pretty…)
This year, I received some truly unique, creative birthday cards. If fact, my cousin Debi sent one that has flickering fireflies in a jar because it reminded her of catching “lightning bugs” when we were kids. Each one is important to me and each has, of course, found a new home in my memory box (#needabiggerbox).
There were handwritten notes included in many and some of the cards were hand-designed. The fact that people took time out of their busy days to remember me really hit home. It reminded me that I, too many times, fall into the trap of exchanging sentiment for ease of execution when it comes to special occasions — I need to stop sending well wishes through cyberspace when a card that can be held in my friends’ hands is what will, perhaps, leave a more lasting impression.
Texts are ok in a pinch (I use them way too often); FB messages are a fantastic way to keep up with friends and family; and emails work when absolutely necessary. But what matters most is face-to-face conversations, phone calls and handwritten cards and letters that can find a home in a pretty box, and yellow gracefully with age.
Speaking of cards, I now laboriously print all the cards I send to the little half-pints in my life because recently I learned that cursive is no longer taught in some schools. This means, at some point, our historic documents will be as readable as hieroglyphics. Let that sink in for a moment …
I’m quite certain I’m not the only Baby Boomer out there who cherishes a simple gesture of beautifully written or even pitifully scribbled kindness. My under-$10 decorative boxes** house memories that may someday be tossed away by those who don’t place the same value on the content as I do; understandably so. I’m ok with that.
But for now, they are mine. All mine.
Don't forget to bloom a little every day,
* Heart-Shield Bibles were first given to soldiers going off to WWII by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The front cover of the Bible was a metal plate. The book fit securely into the breast pocket of their uniforms. The intent of the Bibles was to stop a bullet, which in many cases it did.
** I usually get my decorative boxes from TJ Maxx or Ross.