Does anyone write letters anymore? I don't mean instant messages, electronic mail, texts, tweets, FaceBook posts. I'm talking about long, newsy, handwritten letters. Since I embraced email and then social media (though reluctantly, at first), I don't. In fact, my handwriting has gotten very poor from disuse.
I heard on a news program how the teaching of handwriting is going the way of the Dodo bird. Why do kids need to learn to write cursive? They keyboard (never thought I'd use that word as a verb). While I agree that today's kids need to learn how to type, or keyboard, I think they will come to regret missing out on the skill of reading and writing in cursive.
So, what triggered this topic? Back in January, I blogged that one of my goals this year was to de-clutter my house. Okay, I was more specific—getting rid of books and DVDs, organizing photos, etc. Sadly to say, I haven't touched the photos or DVDs though many books have found new homes and I may just meet somebody at the grocery store wearing my clothes. I haven't given up on my goal just because half the year has gone by.
Last week, I started going through boxes in the basement and came across one with cards and letters from friends and family. Oh yes, as if you didn't already know, I am a packrat. I save much more than I should—though sometimes with good reason, at least from my perspective. As I went through a very large box that had been in the basement for years, I found letters written by my father-in-law and my mother when we all lived nearly eight hundred miles apart. They wrote because, back in the Dark Ages, long distance phone calls were expensive. We had to pay—yikes—by the minute. Our parents grew up during the Great Depression (and my father-in-law proudly claimed a Scot's penchant for saving money) so phone calls were somewhat short. They wrote letters instead.
Mom wrote about family—who had come over for a visit, what the other grandkids were doing—and about everyday things like her good and bad days at bowling, how her garden was coming along, her exasperation with a retired husband, and what books she was reading. When she mentioned books, a wonderful memory surfaced of how excited she was when she discovered romance novels. Feeding her (our) addiction to Harlequins, Silhouettes and Candlelights, we used to mail books to each other in a Girl Scout cookie box, which we would just relabel, reload and return. Not only did I get news from home, I got slices of life from her perspective. Her worries about my dad's health, her delight in receiving my sister's and my letters, her thrill at having two new grandchildren born in the same week, and the really rotten day when she bowled poorly, got a speeding ticket on the way home, was locked out of the house and had to climb in through a window (at age fifty-eight, mind you).
My father-in-law did not have much of a formal education. He had to leave school after eighth grade to help support his mother and brother. You can't tell that from his letters. What shines through is his droll sense of humor. And in reading his long—usually three or four pages from a yellow legal pad—newsy letters, it's like seeing again that kind, gentle man.
While I am so glad I hung onto his letters, my mother's have even greater import to me. Not just because she's my mom. You see, when my father-in-law died at eighty-nine, his mind was still sharp, his personality the same. Not so with my mother. She had Alzheimer's disease. My last memories of my mother were of a confused woman who didn't recognize her children, who became irrationally angry, who'd lost the ability to reason, who eventually didn't care anymore and whose eyes were most often vacant. Physically, Mom died at eighty-four. In reality, the person she was died much before that. They really aren't kidding when they call Alzheimer's "the long good-by".
When I read her letters, it's like my real mom is still here. I hear her voice in those letters. She wrote like she talked, not in any order but adding details in parentheses or within dashes. And I realized how much like her I am.
Mom's letters pretty much stopped in 1987. We moved close by so there was no need. A few years later, we moved away again but still no letters. We had email then and Mom, though she was always afraid she'd make a mistake and "break" the computer, loved hearing "you've got mail". How many of us print out email posts? I don't. Somehow, they're not the same as handwritten letters. Don't get me wrong. I love email, texting, tweeting. I'm so glad I don't have to wait for the mailman to find out what's happening or try to call when busy people aren't home. Instant news is great. But, in that onslaught of news, in that overwhelming deluge of information, doesn't some—most—of it disappear? What "proof" of our real selves are we leaving behind?
If I hadn't saved those letters, I would never have such wonderful memories to replace the last years of Mom's life. So, despite de-cluttering, I'll save those letters from her and my father-in-law. Maybe someday, my grandchildren will read them and in so doing get to know those wonderful people who are an essential part of their heritage.