Handwritten Letters R.I.P.


Placeholder ImageHave you gotten a letter lately?

Not an email.  Or a text message.  Not a note scribbled out by someone in a hurry.  Or even a formal business letter, which was more than likely signed by a computer. I’m talking about a personal, handwritten letter, with a salutation, a proper closing, and an actual signature.

Me, neither.

The following article, which appeared as one of my Sunday morning columns in the newspaper years ago, brought me some feedback from readers, positive and negative.  It also brought me several actual letters, which made it all worthwhile.

Here’s the piece.

I used to get letters them all the time.  I used to write them all the time.  I’ve got, on a shelf in my closet, an old shoebox crammed full with letters that came to me during my army days at a little base in Germany, where I personally kept democracy secure.

Many of the residents of Oakwood – the little East Texas hamlet that, along with my parents, collectively raised me – wrote to me regularly.  Some good hearted souls even sent care packages.  Miss Eudie Belle Cutler sent a nine layer jam cake with a different homemade jam between each layer.  But mostly it was just letters that arrived at Mail Call. And that was fine with me.  Those letters eased the homesickness that was pretty strong in a young fellow who had never even ridden an airplane before Uncle Sam sent his greetings.

I have, in my bookcases, several fat volumes of famous peoples’ collected letters.  I enjoy reading what Ernest Hemingway wrote to his various wives.  And Steinbeck’s daily letters to his editor during the writing of East of Eden – all of them grouped into an amazing book called Journal of a Novel – were more beneficial to me as a novelist than any writer’s manual could have been.

In the high school where I’ve taught for the last twenty-five years, building up that enormous state pension that I’m going to take them up on one of these days, there was, until recent renovations, an interesting display consisting of twenty or so copies of historical documents on laminated plaques in the main entryway.

One of them was a handwritten letter from President Franklin Roosevelt to Joseph Stalin, informing him that “the immediate appointment of General Eisenhower to command of Overlord operation has been decided upon.”  Beneath it was another short, scribbled note – from General Marshall to Eisenhower – which says “I thought you might like to have this for your mementos.”

I’ll just bet he did, don’t you?

I’ve always found it fascinating, and fitting, that the handing over of the biggest invasion force in the history of the world was transacted in a few handwritten lines.

I don’t know when letter writing fell almost completely by the wayside as an important and common human enterprise. Probably it began its slide when e-mailing came into vogue, which lets us dash off truncated communications without any regard to spelling, capitalization, or grammar.  Then the final death knell must have been with the advent of text messaging on cell phones.  My goodness, when you can quickly tap out the bare bone essentials you need to impart, why would you pour a bit of your heart into a multi-page letter, address an envelope, and be out the cost of a stamp?

I can tell you why.

Occasionally, I take down that box of letters I got when I was in the army.  All of them are fun to read again, but the real treasures are the ones from my parents and from my two sisters.  When I hold a letter from my mother in my hands, rubbing the brittle pages between my fingers, and decipher her tiny, wandering hen-scratch handwriting, it’s almost like she’s back with me for a few minutes.

I don’t have a box of old e-mails.  Or text messages.  Because not enough effort is put into them to last. And almost never is enough of the writer’s soul infused into them to be worth keeping.

So, sit right down and write someone a letter.  The recipient will feel better for it.

And so will you.


5 thoughts on “Handwritten Letters R.I.P.

  1. Items among my treasures are handwritten letters from my grandmother. When I see her handwriting, I can picture her again sitting at her desk writing that letter to me. It takes me back to a time when she was alive, and I knew without a doubt I was unconditionally loved. I take them out about once a year to reminisce.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love letters! I still write them, but rarely receive them. I kept all the letters my then-boyfriend, now-husband sent me while were in college. Reading them I realize how it chronicled our daily lives back then. Plus, it was the highlight of my day, to walk to the UC at SFA and check my PO box. Even greater was to have received a letter!
    One of my favorite autobiographies is one of George H. W. Bush. The entire book is a collection of letters. They are personal and poignant and an excellent depiction of his early life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have grieved over the death of letter writing because I, too, have old letters that mean the world to me. When I couldn’t find letters my father wrote me while I was in college I set aside all the chores of the day to search for them. (I found them.) I have often wondered if the postal service’s financial issues began when I and a dear friend I made while living overseas in high school stopped writing three times a week when college life became so hectic.

    Recently I thought I would start writing again. Do you know it is virtually (no pun intended) impossible to find a nice box of stationery now? I have looked. That Mecca of pretty writing paper — Hallmark — only sells cards and thank you notes now. It breaks my heart.

    While going through the treasures and trash of my childhood home (my mother passed last year), I have discovered letters from my uncle when he was in Vietnam, my grandmothers, and other family who are no longer here. There is something comforting in holding that piece of paper they once held — a point of contact, a brief moment in which I can imagine we are close enough to hold hands. How sad that this texting generation will not know that comfort when their loved ones are gone.

    Your post also reminded me of a thank you note I received from a local physician after visiting his office. Written on A4 sized paper, it was nice to be appreciated in an age where healthcare choices are ruled by cubicle flunkies. I stopped by a local office supply store to purchase A4 paper to write my own thank you letters to clients, but had to be satisfied with resume paper.


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