By Christine Clark
A recent Yahoo! article predicted that children born in 2011 will never know landline telephones, books, newspapers, magazines, video stores, phone books, paper maps—and mail—mail that arrives in a physical mailbox. It’s hard to imagine no mail other than e-mail, no more piles of bills and letters awaiting an answer. (I would not miss junk mail.) It is also predicted that almost nothing will be handwritten; quaint relics of the written word will be archived in libraries or museums. Should anyone use his or her hands to write something, that writing probably will not be cursive.
My letter writing diminished after my youngest child was born in 1993, and spiraled further downward when I began using e-mail. Lately, even my e-mail communication has diminished. It is easier to send a note or comment using social media. I prefer Facebook, and using it, I can ask several friends a question at once and have all the answers funneled to the same convenient spot. In addition, as I check FB messages, I can simultaneously chat with people as I await comments on what I think is a clever status I posted.
As a baby boomer, I have the skills to write letters and recently I wrote to thank my former husband’s mother for a Christmas gift. I sensed her loneliness from what she wrote in the Christmas card. Her new home is an assisted living facility in the Midwest. Her nearest daughter lives four hours away; another daughter lives in Texas. My former husband lives in Massachusetts. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren span areas from Chicago to Massachusetts to Florida to Oklahoma. Once one of the most independent women I’ve ever known, she no longer drives and has limits on other aspects of her life.
I decided to write more than a simple thank you note, so I gathered photos and wrote a newsy letter that spilled over a few pages. I knew she could easily decipher my cursive writing that my son says is illegible. I included details about my life, what I was studying, and what books I’ve read. In a few days, I received her handwritten reply. She was delighted to receive my letter and the photos. To continue the conversation, she mentioned books she has read. When I opened her letter, I noticed I sat in an armchair to read it. I sit to read e-mail, but the armchair took me away from office mode. I held the letter in my hands and shifted my eyes from line to line. I turned the page, read more, and turned the page again.
E-mails can have substance, but the substance of a handwritten letter is tangible. I can feel it, I can move it, I can manipulate it. Reading a handwritten letter is different from reading an e-mail. A letter is tactile. You don’t scroll, you move it, you turn the pages, and you move your eyes and your head as you read. You do not stare at a screen and hold your head and body in the same position. No lights, advertisements, banners, or other letters vie for your attention.
I recently received an e-mail from a long-ago friend with the subject “Where are you?” The Christmas letter she sent me was returned because we had lost touch since my move to Florida. She wanted my new address to resend the letter. I am thrilled she found me through e-mail—the Internet often means no more lost friends. I sent her my new address and I await her letter. I want to feel it, to experience it. I want to sit in my armchair with a cup of tea and pay attention to what she has to say. I want to use my imagination and not see flashing pictures or attached photos or documents. I want to savor the moments I spend reading her letter. In the meantime, while I await her letter, I will write my former husband’s mother again. She still lives far from her kids and grandkids, and I know my handwritten letter will mean much more than an e-mail.