A Letter Is Better

[Previous Suburban Farmgirl, October 2009 – October 2010]

At the risk of sounding very retro (and not in a cool, cheeky pinafores and rolling pins kind of way but a jeez-she’s-an-old-fogey kind of way), I’m just going to point out that for all the bemoaning of the loss of newspapers thwacking on the front porch for Fido to fetch, and for all the grousing over the rapid disappearance of corner bookstore and of, well, books whose pages don’t glow in the dark, one other one sort of paper experience has already practically vanished without a trace in the digital age.

The letter. The lowly letter.

Back when Henry David Thoreau wrote, “A written word is the choices of relics,” I’m sure he had a different meaning in mind of “relic” — as in, a sentimental keepsake. Today, though, written words – as in the type that are handwritten, on nice paper, then folded into an envelope, stamped, and handed over to a postman – are also undeniably relic-relics. As in, history.

When was the last time you got one? Wrote one?

I rest my case.

Oh of course on the bright side now we have e-mail, texting, Facebook, et. al, so that your old best friends from first grade can find you just like that (hi again, Therese and Kathy!!!). Cool. And when you have an urgent question for your sister, you neither need to pick up the phone or write the question down and wait four days for a reply. And I think we can all agree here that the instantaneous bonding of the Farmgirl Sisterhood, all of us clucking away rapidfire, beats those chain letters you used to send to a circle of friends, adding your few lines to the bottom and mailing forward so that in a month or two you could receive some nice stale news to chew over before you added your own next installment.

Yep, I’m a digital gal.

But why does my heart leap when I find a letter from, say, Jean, in the box? We could Skype and be done with it, but somehow that wouldn’t be the same. Somehow we’ve fallen back into long letters, like in our post-college days (when postmarks from Iowa, Michigan, California, wherever my pals had scattered seemed to light up my scary New York City existence). I’ll pocket a letter and save it for a quiet moment when I can give it full concentration (sometimes a whole day or two later). I study her familiar curling cursive, read and re-read the sentences. Sometimes I pull them out to re-think later. I know that my replies are more deliberate, less glib, because I have to form…each…word…. Lately we’ve taken to enclosing 25-year-old photos to laugh at. It’s just…different!

Are letters are more heartfelt? Well golly. Where would Anne Elliott be without her letter from Frederick Wentworth? (O pierce my soul!) The March girls couldn’t curl around Marmee and listen to their dad’s war updates. Would we care as much about Abigail and John Adams reading their collected e-mails? And oh yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus! (That’s a letter, too!)

So here, in defense of the lowly letter (which, I freely admit none of us has any time for!), are my five reasons a letter is better, even today:

1. The stationery!

Sometimes, the medium is the message. I know just who might appreciate a sock monkey card or cheery Mary Englebreit paper. A whole drawer of my desk is stuffed with stationery collected over the years, one of my weaknesses. I like taking the time to select just the right paper….the right kind of ink….even the right stamp. (Did you know there’s a movie-cowboy collection out now?)

2. The thrill of arrival!

Waiting for the post has mostly become a matter of waiting for bills and Netflix orders (and, beginning this time of year, catalogs galore). Fine. But isn’t there a frisson of curiosity, to discover, mixed in, your handwritten name and address?

3. The portability!

Stuff it in your pocket, away from prying eyes. Save it in a book or a box. Sneak a peak whenever you like. Display a card on your fridge door or wall (that’s  funny card on my bulletin board below).

4. The little extras!

How’s it signed? “Love”? “As always”? X’s and Os? Is the signature scrawled or neat? First name, nickname, pet name? Again, some of this can be digitally recreated but it’s just not the same. Is there anything enclosed — a photo? Recipe? News clipping? Check??

Here’s a funny message I found recently on the back of the envelope in a box of letters I’d saved since college and just after:

5. The longevity!

That note pictured above was sent to me by my best pal Jo in 1981. And I still have it. I can’t even find an email from last week in my overloaded in-box.

(She’d also crack me up with her return addresses: J. Austen, A. Cartwright, and H. D. Thoreau being among the letter-writers who all seemed to share her address.)

Maybe here’s a sixth reason for letters’ current value: The scarcity!

The ardent letter writers in my family (mainly women of a certain generation) are dying off. I used to write late my mother-in-law every week just because she liked letters – and because she’d write me back! But as more and more penpals disappear or go digital — even my 95-year-old godmother has an email address now! – finding a hand-addressed envelope in your box is as startling as seeing a 25-year-old photo of yourself.

But much nicer.

Right? Write!

Leave a comment 0 Comments

  1. Linda says:

    I have a very "steampunk" older son that would "ah-ha!" at your article. He collects onion paper and the like, has wax and stamp, special pens and ink. Then, if you are one of the lucky few, he will write you a letter, sending it snail-mail, usually writing it by flickering lamp light, taking great pains to say exactly what he means and pondering just what kind of salutation he wants to give you. He is going off to school next week. I hope this means we will be starting a new coorespondence with each other. Still, its nice to know texting is there, if the apron string snaps back and hits me too hard. Thanks for your article!

  2. Susan M. says:

    When son Robby went to Marine Corps boot camp in the summer of 2003, the only communication we had with him for 13 weeks was by good ol’ US mail. Our entire family wrote to him continuously, as well as many of his high school friends who had just graduated with him. In turn, he was a faithful correspondent himself — I’m sure partly because of the Drill Instructors who "encouraged" their recruits to write home. At first we received at least two or three letters a week, but as his homesickness diminished and his training intensified, it dropped to once weekly. Every Wednesday, I would dash to the mailbox, as he always wrote on Sundays and the letter went out Monday a.m. from Parris Island. He told us later that hardly a day went by when he did not receive a letter from someone — in fact, he received more mail than anyone else in his platoon. I also found it amusing to learn that the only communication he had with two buddies who were down there at the same time, but in different units, was by mail! When he went to Iraq, the electronic communication through email, IM and phone was so good that he never "wrote" to us at all. But I still drag out those letters from boot camp from time to time, and they remind me just how much I cherished seeing that familiar scrawl and Parris Island return address in my hand.

  3. Joanna says:

    I am the one who preserves the family treasures and traditions. . . so letter writing is one of the important traditions I keep going. There is something to be said about the magic of sitting at my antique roll top desk, carefully choose my stationary, decide on which pen and ink I will use then sit and quietly write my letter. It is a magical moment that is now captured on paper in my own hand writing. . . it will be stamped and then hand delivered to the addressee…who will do exactly as you have, savor every moment,carefully read and re-read each line, then save the letter for years to come and reflect on it later in life. It is only half of the moment though. . the other half is when they too sit down and write a letter back . . . then and only then, is the circle complete and yet, ready to begin again. . . another letter to continue the tradition and create yet another family treasure!

  4. Colleen says:

    I have a small cigar box of letters from my Great Grandmother that we shared over 8 years before her passing. I still treasure them & bring them out to read at least once a year – they never fail to deliver a new message in the re-reading all these years later!

  5. lee says:

    I too had a son in the military who wrote long letters about what he was doing but most of all what he was thinking. I have each and every one of them in a cherished box. After four years in the navy he went back to college and then enlisted in the army as an officer. He now flies chinook helicopters in Iraq. Now I get e-mails and phone calls but nothing will ever replace the heartfelt letters, in his own penmanship (and spelling) that were full of news and love for God, Country and Family. None of which can be fully expressed in an e-mail. I miss those letters.

  6. Betsy Cline says:

    Well, I totally agree. I have decided that I am going to make cards and send short ( never enough time for long ones) to my friends and family every month. Just to let them know I am thinking about them and love them. I already have the adult Halloween cards done and now just to do the grandkids. I have my Thanksgiving things ready to make and Christmas right behind that. I figure by the end of September I will have all the cards ready for the rest of this year and will start on others. Maybe this would encourage others plus just to let them know they are thought of.

  7. Debbie says:

    My daughter-in-law’s grandmother and I have written letters to each other for the last 10 years. She died last month and I miss her most when the mailman comes without her funny and wonderful long letters. No one in my life has the time to write more than a line or two. Maybe I just need to find a pen pal.

  8. Amy says:

    Oh Absolutely on everything you wrote! I love getting letters and miss receiving them. I have lots of old stationary I have collected and miss those days of perusing stationary STORES (my sister and I always used to say: "When we have OUR stationary store. . . .). I try, now and again, to take the time to send a special letter or card to a special someone just because, because it is special and unusual and I don’t want the custom to be lost — even though I am totally on-line with everyone as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories and nudging me to take a few moments to write a letter to my dear friend Liz. . . . –Amy

  9. Marilyn says:

    Hi Paula,
    You are so right concerning letter writing and keeping in touch. My sisters and I send letters and cards for special occasions and various holidays. Some do keep in touch. It can be frustrating when you do not get a response. We will continue to write,who knows we may even get a response or two!
    Marilyn

  10. Valerie says:

    I like to write letters however have found lately I do that less and less. This is mostly due to my long 10-12 work days, or not that much news to tell and also that I don’t seem to get responses that much as well. Although I do like knowing that my grandmothers etc will receive a letter (neither of them have a computer or have even sent a email before, they are in their 70’s and 80’s)which helps make their day. My one Grandfather is not much for letters. My one grandmother lives in a apartment community for the elderly and it is the talk of the whole community if she gets anything in the mail besides junk/bills. I have been thinking though lately of just getting in the habit of sending a letter or a card at least once a week or every other week. Especially during the winter as due to the Midwest winter (I live out of the Midwest area and am in Virginia) they are not always able to get out and about.

    Valerie

  11. Valerie says:

    I like to write letters however have found lately I do that less and less. This is mostly due to my long 10-12 work days, or not that much news to tell and also that I don’t seem to get responses that much as well. Although I do like knowing that my grandmothers etc will receive a letter (neither of them have a computer or have even sent a email before, they are in their 70’s and 80’s)which helps make their day. My one Grandfather is not much for letters. My one grandmother lives in a apartment community for the elderly and it is the talk of the whole community if she gets anything in the mail besides junk/bills. I have been thinking though lately of just getting in the habit of sending a letter or a card at least once a week or every other week. Especially during the winter as due to the Midwest winter (I live out of the Midwest area and am in Virginia) they are not always able to get out and about.

    Valerie

  12. Debbie says:

    Paula,

    Just this week I mailed 4 ( Im sorry to say, sympathy cards, and one cheerful hello card) along with my monthly bills. I still do those by hand too! Oh I’m a digital gal too, I email, text and blog but I’m also old fashioned and sentimental. My mother in law ( 88) still writes us and we live only one town away and my daughter has a pen pal who she writes and recieves letters from at least monthly! Great post!
    Deb

  13. Cheri says:

    I love writing letters. And of course, getting them. Going to the mailbox is fun if there might be letters instead of junk mail or bills. I have a few pen friends who I write to on a regular basis. We know quite a lot about each other and share whtever is going on in our lives. I prefer the snail mail method to email. Although I do both. Snail mail is so personal. It takes time to sit down and write a letter. Makes it more personal and caring. I’m doing my own stationary on the computer now. Can’t really find much nice stuff.

  14. Carol says:

    I’ve been a letter writer since I was a young child. I’m in my mid 50’s now and have 1 daughter. When she went off to college, I wrote several times a week. She’s now in her 2nd year of law school and I continue to do so. She recently shared that she saves my letters. I’m touched beyond words. I love stationary and was very sad when my favorite company (Lang) stopped making it. Fortunately, I had bought probably enough to last a lifetime thanks to a wonderful tolerant husband who encouraged me to buy whatever I liked at their many sales over the years. I text, email, use Facebook, etc, but nothing beats having an old fashioned conversation on paper. I’ve taught my daughter the importance of letter writing and writing personal thank you notes for everything–from being invited to dinner to being given gifts and I’ve kept her well supplied with beautiful thank you notes and stationary to do so. There’s just something so calming and so classy about the art of writing on paper and making the effort to run to the post office.

  15. Juliann says:

    Well, the good news is that the post is still revered here in England…speak to someone on the phone and this must be follow up by something through the post…letters in the post are still appreciated and, unbelievably, part of the business landscape still!

    I did love writing letters (and receiving them) when I was younger…especially to you, Paula! Remember the sealing wax phase, when we collected stamps and different coloured was to seal our letters? I have no idea where my ‘J’ and my Leo lion ended up but what satisfaction after creating a written masterpiece to put it in an envelope and seal it so substantively with a personal expression!

  16. Jean says:

    P2
    I owe you a letter!
    JB

  17. Denise Ross (Aus) says:

    Hi Paula
    Thanks so much for the inspiration to begin letter writing again. I used to write regularly with my sister especially and think about writing others as well, but it has all fallen by the wayside. I do like the fact that I can think about what I want to say as I write it and and yes do miss getting a personal hand written note in the mail box – emails don’t equate to this, although I do love the speed we have with our digital age.
    I am definitely going to buy some lovely stationary to write to my grandmother in law, since I don’t always feel up for a telephone conversation.
    Thanks for the inspiration and your wonderful blog.
    Enjoy every one of your posts
    Thanks a million xx

  18. Denise Ross (Aus) says:

    Hi Paula
    Thanks so much for the inspiration to begin letter writing again. I used to write regularly with my sister especially and think about writing others as well, but it has all fallen by the wayside. I do like the fact that I can think about what I want to say as I write it and and yes do miss getting a personal hand written note in the mail box – emails don’t equate to this, although I do love the speed we have with our digital age.
    I am definitely going to buy some lovely stationary to write to my grandmother in law, since I don’t always feel up for a telephone conversation.
    Thanks for the inspiration and your wonderful blog.
    Enjoy every one of your posts
    Thanks a million xx

  19. Joy says:

    I wrote a letter to my son when he told me he’d decided to become a policeman. I cautioned him to never forget that to be an officer of the law is to serve the public, and to maintain his compassion, honesty and integrity despite the challenges that he was sure to face. He never acknowledged the letter in any way. Until the day that as class valedictorian he stood in front of his fellow cadets and read a portion of my letter. He also said that he had reread my letter several times. I’m not ashamed to say that hearing him say that made me cry. As a mother, you never know if your kids are hearing you. Well this was one time I knew he’d listened. And I know it was because I put my feelings into that letter.

  20. carolj says:

    AMEN!! There is nothing better than going to the mailbox and pulling out a handwritten note. We have quite a collection of old letters ourselves. A letter from my great, great grandfather to his family during the Civil War. My brother when in early elementary school telling my grandmother that he was sorry she had broken her tailbone, he was "broke, too."
    And most recently notes from all over the country expressing sorrow for the loss of my father-in-law.

    Letters are better!!

  21. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    These comments are better than the post itself! I love all your stories about letter writing and its value!!

  22. Kathy says:

    Write On! your words touched my heart! I have a box of "correspondence" that I have saved over the years. My grandmas and my cousins were all big letter writers and I loved to send and receive mail. Letter writing is a lost art and I try to do my small part by sending handmade cards and notes for all occasions and sometimes for no reason at all.

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