Recently, my husband and I packed up seventeen years’ worth of belongings and sent them into storage half-way across the country, to be retrieved when we move into our new – hopefully last – house. While some of the things we’d acquired and kept over the years, no longer spoke to us, or were relevant to our current lives, other old boxes held treasures which we lovingly re-packed.
One such treasure was a collection of letters from my grandfather to my grandfather, when he was deployed during World War II and the Korean War. They are his responses to the letters my grandmother wrote to him, which we do not have. Still, these one-sided conversations were like time portals opening to when these two, now departed, beloved people were young, in love, and starting their family.
They are also the beginning of a legacy I have inherited. I come from a family of letter writers, and I have continued this habit.
Letter-writing is often considered a lost art, but it shouldn’t be. Texting is great for immediate information or a quick thought. Email is fantastic for exchanging timely thoughts. Letters, handwritten or typed, sealed into envelopes, and sent by mail are textual portraits, freeze-frames of specific moments in time that capture thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams and put them all down on paper.
Receiving letters is something that brings joy to older people in a way phone calls and email do not. I remember my grandmother (in New Jersey) clutching a letter from her sister-in-law to her heart, then making a cup of coffee and “a little something” (typically Milano cookies or anisette toast) and sitting down to not just read, but savor, the curlicued words on the sheaves of thin air-mail paper.
When I asked her what was so special about the letter, she said, “Ellen took time to write this. She sat down and thought about me, and what she would say to me, and then she put it on paper. In a way, it’s like I’m having coffee with her.”
I recall long summer afternoons drinking iced tea with my grandmother on the front porch and greeting the mail carrier when he came. “Is there anything for me?” she would ask with childlike anticipation. And if there was, she would smile brightly and thank him for the delivery.
I also recall my grandparents taking the time to write – or rather print – in careful ink on wide-ruled paper, letters to me, before I had learned cursive. As I grew older, they discontinued the printing, but the letters continued, my grandmother’s in her messy scrawl full of dashes and ellipses and made-up shorthand, and my grandfather’s in his neat, precise, engineer’s handwriting.
I have a box of their letters to me in my storage unit, and I have the saved birthday cards from my mother and aunt who both love to fill every iota of white space, even going over to the backs of printed cards. It’s interesting to me to see how their handwriting is both similar and different, matching each of their voices.
My own letter-writing is a mix of missives to friends and family, and more altruistic writing. I regularly send mail to soldiers deployed overseas – this is distance caregiving, of a sort as these men and women often join the military to escape from horrible lives at home, and don’t come from families who write. I also have joined letter-writing projects, sending cards and notes to people in senior care homes. Some of these people – the soldiers and the seniors – have become pen-pals and we continue to exchange cards, letters, and postcards, as the mood strikes.
In one of my favorite books, Gift of a Letter, Alexandra Stoddard wrote, “Letter writing allows us to be alone yet connected. We need a certain amount of solitude in order to have true ideas to communicate. But few of us desire solitude all the time …. Yet solitude is what makes us contemplative and receptive, more aware of life’s gifts and our own special blessings.”
A letter, whether you are the writer or the recipient, is a special blessing contained in a paper envelope. What blessings have you bestowed lately? What blessings have been bestowed upon you?