It started a couple of weeks ago when my mom posted on Facebook a letter she’d found while she was going through her mother’s belongings. The letter was written on June 30, 1918 to Cora Edwards, my great grandmother. Her brother Lonnie wrote it to her while he was stationed in France during World War I.
The letter was poignant on many levels with its description of the French countryside and the mention of how almost all the women he’d seen in France and England wore mourning clothing. And Lonnie was so eager to hear news from home. He wrote, “It is very little news I have from home- the States, so wish you would write me as often as you have time even tho you may not hear from me very often. Send all the news paper clippings of interest you can.” At the end of the letter he went on to say, “I have received only three letters since I’ve been here. It was 41 days before I received any mail. Lots of it must have been lost.”
After reading the letter I commented to my mom (via Facebook) that it must have been so exciting to get letters from overseas back then, and that although facebook and email are great for staying in touch these days, there is something nice about a handwritten letter of depth. I made this comment realizing that it had been ages since I’d actually taken the time to hand-write a long, newsy, rambling letter to anyone.
The idea of writing someone a “real” letter stuck with me. I thought of my friend Ellen from my college days in Missoula and decided I would put her on the top of my list of people to write. We haven’t stayed current with each other’s lives and she is an obvious choice because she doesn’t use facebook and I don’t have her email address.
Then I got a great surprise last Friday. Dean’s Aunt Kathy (well my aunt too, for the past twenty years) had seen the comment I left on my mom’s Facebook page, and so she wrote me a letter. A beautiful letter telling me about Dean’s father, a man I was never able to meet. I knew he had been a businessman and a pilot, but I never would have known that he wrote poetry if not for Kathy’s letter.
So last Sunday morning, while the house was still quiet, and with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, I sat down to write two letters, the first to Kathy, the second to Ellen.
Something about hand-writing the letters felt very different than pressing buttons on a keyboard. It felt more personal and less business-like. I wrote without the benefits of spell-check (which made me have to stop and think on more than one occasion) and I had to use the old-fashioned method of crossing out mistakes rather than just hitting backspace. My handwriting changed too, sometimes tidy and small if I was being particularly thoughtful, sometimes bigger and more sloppy if I was writing quickly or getting caught up in an idea. I couldn’t make it all uniform by choosing a font style or size.
By far the best part of writing those two letters though was the feelings and memories I conjured up during the process. While writing Kathy’s letter it felt like she was there with me. I remembered how it felt to sit across from her in her kitchen when our family spent Christmas at her house several years ago. I could almost hear her voice. While writing to Ellen I remembered the long walks we used to take around the streets of Missoula. For those few moments it felt like we were making our way through the University district, talking non-stop the entire time.
All of this thinking about reading and writing letters also reminded me of the letters I used to get from my mom when I was a little girl. For most of the year I only got to be with her every other weekend, but between visits she would always write a letter. I would read them repeatedly throughout the week, and each time they made me feel close to her, even though we were three towns apart. Those letters mattered; they gave me something tangible to hold on to when I missed her.
I don’t see myself giving up Facebook or email, but I realize that hand-written, personal letters convey a sentiment that’s often missing in technology. So thanks Aunt Kathy for the hand-written letter. Thanks also to my grandmother, Marie Acree, for holding on to Great-Uncle Lonnie’s letter for all those years. And thanks Mom, for posting the historical letter on Facebook. It made me appreciate that I can check my friends’ and family’s status, even “chat” with them from time to time. But it also made me remember how nice it is to find a real ink-on-paper-stuffed-in-an-envelope-sealed-with-a-stamp-letter in the mailbox. I intend to write more of them.