Monday, October 17, 2011

Here's to the Pen and Postage Stamp

    Notice:  I wrote this last week, knowing I would be out of town over the weekend. How was I to know that Ben Stein would do a commentary on this very topic on CBS Sunday Morning this week?  It's the first time that Mr. Stein and I have been on the same page (pun intended) on a topic, although we didn't say exactly the same thing.  I just wanted to mention this in case you also are a fan of Sunday Morning.

    Now, on with the blog.

    I heard recently that the average American receives one piece of actual written mail every six weeks. Obviously, someone else is getting my one letter. My mailbox is filled with bills, junk mail and catalogs.

     This is opposed to my email box which is filled with messages from friends, relatives and former students( most of whom found me through Facebook), bills, spam and scams. Don't get me wrong. I am have reconnected with more old friends and students than I can count, to say nothing of dozens of cousins. This is all good, because I am a real phonophobe. I will do anything to avoid speaking on the phone. (I consider a cell phone an emergency tool, not a means of basic communication.) Before email, I would literally write notes to friends who lived in the same town, to avoid the phone. Now I can shoot off an email to my next door neighbor (or editors) without being thought weird.

   While I can keep up with a ton of people via email, I miss real, handwritten letters, even from people with horrible handwriting.  One of my earliest memories of my mother was of her sitting at the kitchen table, once a week, to "write letters to the family." Mom had seven siblings, a mother plus in-laws that expected a weekly letter (and vice versa). At our house, there was Wash Day, Ironing Day, Baking Day...and Letter Writing Day.

    Mom disliked writing, the way she disliked cooking, ironing and sewing. She think she wasn't very good at these things, but they were chores, and chores had to be done. She would write a first draft letter in pencil on cheap tablet paper. She would recopy them on her "good" linen stationary using a fountain pen. (I can still see the blue and yellow box that contained the jar of Scripto ink, that I was never ever allowed to touch.) She wrote so many letters on "writing day" that they didn't fit into our wall mounted mailbox for the mailman to collect. Writing day ended with a trip to the corner mailbox. (Remember them?)

    Opening the mailbox each day was like a surprise treasure chest. Long before I could read script, I recognized my grandfather's beautiful steelplate handwriting, the crabbed scrawl of my arthritic grandmothers. Best of all were the letters of my favorite aunt. She was the only one who typed, so I could actually read what my cousins were doing, as opposed to my mother giving me digest versions.

   Letter writing has a long history in my mother's family. Fortunately, my grandmother was something of a literary packrat and kept everything anyone ever wrote her. The family's letters from World War II formed the basis of Jimmy's Stars. We have her letter of acceptance to Vasser, the letters she wrote as a newlywed to her own grandmother.

    Slighly less highminded are the letters I saved from my college roommates and boyfriends that we wrote over summer vacations. Still, they are so evocative of a time and place in a way that emails are not (even though I do have a file of emails, 10 to 15 years old). The stationary (Holly Hobbie, Ziggy, the Peanuts paper my boyfriend and I favored, neon colored paper with neon colored ink that were almost impossible to read), the nicknames, the concerns, the just day-to-day-ness of what we wrote--"I saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and thought of you"--no further elaboration!--speaks to me across time and brings that person back to me.

   Through all the years that rejection letters filled my mailbox in depressing number, I kept writing my books and stories. However, if I wanted to feel real satisfaction, I would write a a cousin, an
aunt, even my parents. (This was in the days before long distance calling plans.) For one thing, the return letter did not include the words "your work does not meet our needs at this time." A letter always met the recipient's need somehow.

   While I didn't draft letters the way my mother did, I do remember considering, pondering each word before I committed it to my Snoopy paper. Maybe that's the difference. It's easier and faster to write on a computer...without a lot of pondering. Perhaps we are the worse for it.

     There are still things that I feel I have to send by snail mail...condolences and thank yous, letters to children who write me, my very extra special friends and relatives.  And if I ever could find her snail mail address, I want to write to the teacher who made me want to be a teacher.

    So just for today, go Luddite; sit down and handwrite something to a friend, relative or teacher, put it in an envelope, stamp it and mail it. Yes, I know it takes more time. But you know what? Somewhere, someone is getting my "one-handwritten-letter-every-six-weeks." Possibly because I haven't written any lately.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Lindsey Lane said...

Your post strikes such a chord. I have been receiving a surfeit of first class cards and letters of late because of a death in the family. I feel such comfort in the walking to the mailbox, the opening of the envelope, the silent communion.

teacherdance said...

You took me back to many memories. My grandmother both wrote me letters & I have kept a few, but now wish I had more. I too remember that blue & yellow Scripto box-wow, ink is wonderful & I own a real ink pen. Maybe, just maybe. . . But now I've settled for writing my grandson a postcard every week since he moved to another state this past February. It's a way to let him know I'm thinking of him, to be silly with him like old times. He is ten, & not much of a phone talker yet. Thanks!

mary ann rodman said...

Lindsay, I am so sorry to hear of your loss, but am happy that you have friends and relatives who are filling your mailbox with comfort. (My husband and I have lost parents in the last couple years, and were surprised that the few people who wrote us, did so by email. Perhaps condolence letters have gone the way of calling cards, but my husband and I have one to write tonight.)
Teacherdance, your grandson will adore you for not only sending him the silly cards, but for the simple fact it's real mail! I don't care how proficient kids are at texting (mine has her phone glued to her thumbs) or how easy they find it to call someone...they still love mail. They also learn that people can communicate in writing that involves full words and sentences (OK, so I am a texting snob) I am glad there are other fans of the handwritten (or at least hard copy) letter. Thanks, guys. (I have a feeling this letterwriting topic will come up again before the end of the year.)

hosking said...

We just took a trip for our 15th wedding anniversary. I bought a nice note card for my mom and wrote a small letter. She doesn't do email. Plus I wanted to send her the info sheet we got on dh lawrence in taos.

Joyce Ray said...

Mary Ann,
I agree with you! It's nothing short of wonderful to open the mailbox and unseal a true handwritten letter from someone special to me. I feel like saving the few I do receive. Someday they will be archival! Of course, I treasure one letter written by my Greek great-grandmother responding to news of my birth!

jan godown annino said...

Papers, cards, inks, stamps -commemorative stamps - rubber stamps, it all makes me dizzy with anticipation.
I agree!
How can I not enjoy pushing away from the keyboard, pulling out a delicious colored pencil or favorite pen & to post (in the previous usage) the hand-printed or hand-scripted word?
Love this post!
Send that postal mail!

As an aside, I have an unfair advantage. I can walk to my wonderful Centerville post office. And for 15 years, as they come & go, the folks behind the counter all know my face & some of them my name. They are a lovely bunch of human beings who go out of their way to deliver mail to me, without zip on it, without my full name, etc. etc.