When our son Leif turned 10 earlier this month, we hosted a birthday party. After he and his friends played laser tag and ate cake, Leif opened a pile of presents. I sat nearby writing down who gave him what. By the time he’d finished, four of his friends had asked me why I was making a list.
“So he’ll remember who gave him what when he writes his thank-yous,” I told them.
In my office closet, two bankers boxes contain important letters I’ve received throughout my life. But it’s in a desk drawer where I store the letters I value most: those from my grandma, most written in the decade before I graduated high school. Due to a hand tremor she’d had since her 20s, Grandma typed her letters before adding her quavering signature.
The difference between my childhood and my children’s seems less like a generational change than an epochal one. Nobody I knew had home computers. And, until I was in high school, there were no VCRs and few homes had cable TV. You saw movies and shows when they aired and were out of luck if you missed something.
Also, there were no cellphones and most homes had only one or two landlines — big phones with rotary dials attached to walls. Long distance calls, generally those made to any phone number with a different area code than your own, were prohibitively expensive. And so, we wrote letters.
Layers of emotion imbued the writing, anticipating and receiving letters. How can younger generations — who’ve grown up continuously connected through devices — comprehend the giddy feeling that accompanied the arrival of a long and eagerly awaited missive?
I value the ease with which we can now stay in touch and share images, even videos, with friends and family online. But something is lost when every thought, cute moment or (God help us) pithy meme can be instantly transmitted.
Handwritten letters, on the other hand, are composed. Corrections cannot be vaporized with a backspace button. Before ink appears upon paper, thoughts require reflection, like a wort that, once heated, separates alcohol from water to distill into a fine Scotch.
In prior columns, I introduced readers to my friend Jen Marvelous, who circumnavigated the globe with her husband and four daughters in 2016. We first became friends our senior year at Ohio State University.
After graduation in 1992, Jen moved to the Land Institute in Kansas and sent me letters filled with descriptions of heirloom prairie plants and her co-workers. While she was there, I sent her word that I was trying to conceive my first child.
After Kansas, Jen joined the Peace Corps. Soon her letters told me about the beauty and struggles of living in a remote mountain village in Honduras where she taught sustainable agricultural practices to farmers.
But, as with all my former correspondents, eventually our communication moved to email and, later, text messages. Then, three years ago, an envelope arrived. I knew the handwriting immediately, though I’d not seen it in 15 years — a letter from Jen.
She told me how much our long friendship meant to her, what I meant to her. She and another friend had parted ways and she never wanted that to happen to us. Holding her letter in my hands as I read it, I was touched in a way no email could have moved me.
Even though I immediately responded with a letter of my own, it was a week after Jen mailed her letter to me that she received my response. She was so relieved when it finally arrived, telling her how I equally value our relationship.
One of my readers, a woman in her 90s named Barbara, became my first pen pal of this century. For three years, she has regularly written me the most encouraging letters about my columns. Over time, she and I have shared much with one another.
Barbara often encloses clippings of stories from magazines with notes in her delicate handwriting along the margins. I sent her a photo of Max and me with our own nonagenerian, Uncle Bascom, whom I regularly write about in my letters.
In January, Barbara wrote that she was moving from Akron to New Hampshire to be near her son and daughter-in-law. Sadly, we were unable to meet before she moved. On Valentine’s Day, I received a letter from Barbara. She’s settling in at her new apartment and ready to resume our correspondence. I couldn’t be more delighted.
Holding my long-departed grandma’s letters, which her hands touched as she filled them with thoughts about many things, including me, are the closest I can now get to being with her.
This is why from time to time, say an important birthday or a graduation, I write long letters to my children. I tell them what a joy it has been watching them go from chubby peanuts to tall, talented men. “Make sure you keep this letter,” I tell them, “You’ll want it after I’m dead.” They roll their eyes and laugh before hugging me.
But they get it. And they, too, have begun reciprocating. Not every birthday, Christmas or Mother’s Day, but here and there, they write me tender letters. After I’ve savored them with multiple readings, I place my sons’ letters in the same desk drawer as Grandma’s.
This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 23, 2020.