Back in June, I returned home from a weekend away to discover that a package had come in the mail. It was from an old college friend who lives in northern Maine. She still means a lot to me, though I rarely see her. Inside the package was a book, an illustrated copy of the French fairy tale “The White Cat,” along with a beautiful handwritten letter and a photograph of her two teenage sons. “When I saw this book, I thought of you,” my friend wrote. It was one of the nicest surprises I’ve had in a long time.
In this age of text messages, email and Skype, handwritten letters can seem outdated relics of communication to be shelved alongside rotary-dial telephones and telegraph machines. And while I think having the ability to send some forms of written correspondence electronically is a godsend, my electricity bill, for example, I believe it’s time for the handwritten personal letter to make a comeback.
I can think of few better ways to let someone know how much you care about them than to sit down in a quiet place away from distractions, choose a beautiful piece of stationery, and spend time creating a document in your own handwriting that’s meant for that person alone.
Growing up, I wrote letters constantly, sometimes two or three a day. It was the only way I could communicate with friends who lived too far away to call, which in some cases was only a few towns over. (“Long distance” calls cost a bundle then, and were generally reserved for special occasions or emergencies.) I had a large collection of stationery, pens and note cards, and relatives would often give me books of postage stamps as Christmas or birthday gifts.
In addition to writing letters to friends, I had pen pals in far away places, some of whom I never met. One of my pen pals in high school, a person I wrote to for years, lived in a small town in Vermont, a place so vastly different from my urban neighborhood near Boston that I had trouble imagining what it was like. Through his letters, I came to know Vermont’s culture, food and landscape in a way that was second only to being there.
I feel lucky to be a Gen Xer — fluent in both 20th and 21st century technology.
In college, I corresponded with a friend who was studying in Japan, amassing a collection of exotic postage stamps and snapshots. I received letters weekly from another friend, a Mormon who was serving his mission in Las Vegas’ underbelly. I still remember the sad and sometimes grisly tales he told about things he experienced there.
When I was a senior in college, I often wrote letters to my sister, who was a homesick freshman at a different university. I still have her replies. Among the only letters I have ever received from her, they tell the story of the time we became friends, rather than siblings who had no choice about our relationship.
I also have shoeboxes full of letters from high school and college boyfriends, some of them serious and more than an inch thick when folded into their envelopes. Others are humorous. One of them begins, “I can’t wait to see you with your braces off.”
When my daughter, Madelaine, started college in 2016, I sent her several letters. They sat in her mailbox for months because it never occurred to her to check it. Although I love my smartphone and can’t now imagine living or working without texting or the internet, I feel lucky to be a Gen Xer — fluent in both 20th and 21st century technology. Madelaine will never know what it’s like to stand by the window waiting for the mail to be delivered, or the thrill of opening the mailbox to find a much-anticipated envelope.
Along with the news of the day, letters deliver their writers. Individual personalities, tastes and moods are revealed by the choice of paper and the color of the ink, and in the unique slant of someone’s handwriting. Each is a singular creation, making a handwritten letter to communicating what “slow food” is to cuisine. Like home-baked bread or a plump heirloom tomato, I’d forgotten how good letters could be until I received one.