From as far back as I can remember, one of the highlights of my day has been the arrival of the day’s mail. When I was small, most of the cards and letters that the postman dropped at our door were addressed to my mother. She had left her life and history two thousand miles away on the South Carolina shores to live in what she most surely thought were the wilds of California. The many cards and letters that traversed the continent were her lifeline, her connections in vellum and medium card stock, to the family and friends she might never see again.
I began writing to these unseen relatives, my Grandmother Alice, Great Aunt Hester, Uncle Avery and Aunt Lutie, almost as soon as I could print my name, and some of my most cherished treasures are the few cards and letters of theirs from the 1950’s and 1960’s that survived my many moves and spring cleanings. The most special letter that I have though is one that was not actually written to me. It was written by my Grandmother Alice to my cousin Ruth, who was my Mother’s contemporary. My Grandmother had traveled from Charleston to California and was living with us temporarily, helping my Mom who was pregnant with me at the time.
In the letter, my Grandmother describes my Father laying the cement walkways in our backyard, the very ones on which I would later roller skate and ride my bike. She talked about him planting fruit trees, those extravagantly bountiful and delicious apricot and fig trees that would become such an integral part of our lives, trees that in my child’s view had been there from time immemorial.
It is so hard to imagine our parents as young men and women; to read my Grandmother’s description of my youthful parents is to share an intimate moment with them that I would have never been able to experience otherwise. For that irreplaceable gift, I will always be indebted to my cousin Ruth who graciously sent the letter to me shortly before her own death in 1994.
Regrettably, letter writing has lost its popularity in our country. Whereas, at one time it was our major form of communicating with loved ones and friends from afar, today the technology of our harried society–text messages, email, tweets, Facebook, telephones–have pretty much replaced the slow and thoughtful musings of the pen. People complain that they are too busy to write a long newsy letter, but I suspect that we are no busier as a people than we ever were; that instead we have replaced the time we could write letters with time in front of the television set or the computer or Xbox. Instead of committing our thoughts and impressions of the world to paper–a physical act that can leave a permanent mark of us in time–we have allowed ourselves to become passive recipients of someone else’s images and viewpoints, a process that will likely leave nothing more permanent than an indentation in our sofas.
I am not guilt-free in this leaving behind of letter writing. I love my computer; I love the instant communication it allows with email and the wider audience one can achieve with blogging, tweeting and Facebook as well as the instantaneous dissemination of important news and ideas. (An obvious downside: the proliferation of “fake news” and lies that populate the internet landscape.) But there is something very sad to me when I walk down to my mailbox and find only flyers or ads and bills and not even very many of those. The Grandmothers and Aunts and Uncles who used to write long interesting letters to me are gone now and with them my sense of anticipation and eager excitement for what the mailman has to bring.
But throughout history, some of the greatest literature ever written has been in the form of the letter. Whether from kings and statesmen, lovers or friends, letters have provided a more intimate view of ourselves as a people and nation than newspaper or history accounts could ever provide. And one of the reasons they provide this stunning and insightful viewpoint into ourselves is that letters allow us to muse, to simmer our thoughts, to let our defenses down at times; to show ourselves as we truly are.
The invention of the telephone was admittedly a landmark in human communications and no one can deny the thrill of hearing a loved one’s voice from miles away. But verbal and written communications are very different. We don’t speak the way we write and it is the written word that years later can still bring a tear, a smile, a memory. If Sarah Bernhardt had told her lover by phone, “Your words are my food, your breath my wine. You are everything to me,” her words likely would have been lost to the rest of us forever. And what a shame that would be.
Photo of my Dad with my older brother. In the background you can see the cement walkway and a young alder tree and a recently planted fig tree. Photo taken about 1949.
(This post is re-printed from my blog: http://luv2rt-justsomethoughts.blogspot.com)