I’ve always marveled at how the word “letter” has two commonly used meanings. One is a symbolic representation of a voiced sound in our alphabets. The other is the conveyance of ideas from person to person by the use of paper and alphabetical letters formed by ink or pencil.
People have composed letters throughout the ages to introduce themselves to one another, to say “thank you”, to beg forgiveness, to ruminate about their shared past experiences, to spread goodwill, express romantic and familial love, and to bid farewell. Letter writing is a personal art-form best composed in longhand or block printing by putting pen to paper. Typing one’s thoughts electronically will do in a pinch, but something immeasurable is lost when a letter is digitally sent.
The personal computer, the tablet, and smart phone have been boons for overall communication and information delivery, but have been curses for the art of the letter. Electronic communication is a convenience that I love, but it has enabled my inherent laziness regarding letter-writing. For occasions that I would formerly write a letter or a note, currently, email quickly and efficiently suffices.
One of my friends sends me a birthday letter each year that he types out on his old portable Smith-Corona typewriter. He also writes his year-end “holiday greetings” letters with his typewriter, then has his local print shop make several photo-copies that he inserts into the envelopes with greeting cards to his family and friends.
A couple of years ago, I stumbled across an old shoe-box filled with personal letters addressed to my paternal grandparents. Some of them were embarrassingly intimate, but most of them were symbolic of the celebrations or the hardships of the past.
There were heartbreaking stories of people suffering from diseases that now have a cure or can be prevented through vaccination. I read gripping letters from sons overseas serving in the military during the two World Wars and Korea. There were amusing letters that friends and family sent to my grandparents to gloat about the tourist destinations visited. There were birth announcements, thank you notes for gifts given by my grandparents, and condolences letters written to help ease the pain of family members’ deaths.
The box of letters was like a time machine into my family’s distant past. I read each letter, then sent the box along to my cousin–the family archivist.
I have my own files that contain letters from family and friends. I wish I had started saving the letters when I was still a young boy but I was much more careless and negligent then. It was after college when I began saving my personal correspondence. I have decades-old birthday letters and some special holiday cards containing letters from family and pals. Every few years or so I rummage through the personal archives in order to reminisce.
I still receive a few bona-fide letters a few times each year. Three of my friends who have long ago moved to other cities send letters to commemorate my birthdays and the December holidays. Those letters get saved to the archives because they are so personal and warm. I like to remember how their lives have unfolded and grown.
There is one large plastic envelope that contains letters from past lovers. They are rarely re-read, but I keep them as poetic reminders because romantic love is irresistible. My current boyfriend and I once confessed to each other that both of us have caches of love letters from our former love interests. I haven’t read any of those old love letters in years, but it’s comforting to know I have them. I don’t know about BF’s old letter re-reading habits; it’s better not to pry.
I’m thinking about letters today because I celebrated another birthday last month. I picked up the cards and letters I received for that day and have re-read them. Now is the time to lovingly place them into the archives to save for posterity.