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 letter...to 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