Can you remember the last time you received a letter in the mail? No, not one that tells you that you may have won a contest or that you are eligible for a great insurance rate. I am talking about an honest to goodness personal letter with news and expressions of affection or friendship. That long, huh?
Letters today have apparently gone the way of the dodo bird. Perhaps they are used in business, but rarely are they seen in personal communications. It is much quicker to shoot an e-mail to someone or to send a text than it is to draft a letter containing complete sentences and words which are spelled out completely. On the bright side, you are less likely to receive a Dear John letter today; however, you are also probably not going to get a tangible communication from a friend or loved one that may be stored and treasured. E-mails are here today and gone (deleted) tomorrow. Handwritten notes are more likely to be saved and reread because they are more personal than a typed or electronic message.
I was fortunate to have received quite a few letters in my younger years. As a college student, I was assigned a mailbox in the lobby of my dorm. About the only thing I ever received in it was letters from my Dad. He wrote me weekly during my entire four years in college and continued to do so even after my graduation. The letters lessened in frequency in his last years when he was busy caring for Mom as well as tending to his own health issues. When he was on his deathbed, I told him that the thing I would miss most about him going to heaven was that he couldn’t send me letters from there.
Written letters preserve communications between the parties. Moreover, they serve as a primary source of information as to what occurred during a specific time period. They are a gift that keeps on giving. In the present letters provide updates and heartfelt statements. In the future, they give the reader a glimpse into and a feel for the past.
I got a glimpse into my family’s past by reading a handwritten letter found in my father’s effects after his passing. My immediate attention was drawn to the age of the letter (yellowed paper) and the postmarked date–July 4, 1943. The letter was written to Dad by my grandmother (after whom I am named) when he was away at U.S. Army training during World War II. Although it was penned in July 1943, I am able in January 2016 to read this epistle and go back in time to view the world as it was then and to learn about its author.
What a history lesson I got. Wages were much different way back then. My grandmother reported that her youngst son, my Uncle Jimmy, made 15 whole cents raking someone’s yard that morning. He was working hard at yard jobs to save up money to buy “some of those rubber things to go on his bicycle handles.” The world was at war, so gas was being rationed. My Uncle Bob had a visiting friend with “all the gas tickets they can use.” This resource apparently made them quite popular as they were “going to a picture show with two girls” that night. Attending movies at the Vogue was typical entertainment. However, my grandmother had recently gone to see a “depressing” John Steinbeck movie, “The Moon Is Down,” rather than a movie about wizards, spies or vampires. Eating out was a special occasion in those days and not a regular activity. My grandmother reported that the family dined out for the first time “in about a year.” Rather than burgers or pizza, my grandmother feasted on chicken pie, turnip greens, cottage cheese and tomato salad, corn muffins and raisin pie. Mmm, mmm, good!
Reading the letter gave me the chance to develop a better image of its writer, my grandmother, in addition to learning about the world in which she lived. She died when I was in elementary school, so my view of her was through the eyes of a child. As an adult, I gleaned quite a bit about her from reading her own words.
First, she had a good sense of humor. She told my dad that she had done the “unusual, the unbelievable” that morning, i.e., she stayed in bed until nearly 9 a.m. Second, she was extremely detailed. She explained in depth how my Uncle Jimmy had convinced my grandfather to take them out to dinner by stressing to his father that his poor mother “has to cook every day.” She included quotes, her exact dinner order, etc. Third, she was an honest person–one not afraid to admit she was only human. My grandmother acknowledged that “I do get impatient and discouraged.” However she was also a woman of faith. She explained that she asked the Lord every day to give her patience and courage. She recognized that “We are so short of vision we don’t know what is really best for us.” The solution was to ask God to take care of us “believing that he knows best.” Finally, my grandmother was a good mother. She clearly wrote to Dad on a regular basis. She sent Dad clippings from the local paper and regaled him with the goings on involving neighbors and friends. She put his focus on his family and his home thereby helping him to stay connected. This undoubtedly took his focus off of his Army training (at least for the brief time it took to read the letter) and the unknown and scary future lying ahead after Army training. [He was ultimately a part of the post-war occupation forces in Japan.]
I probably learned more about my grandmother from reading this letter than I did during all the time I spent with her as a child. And what I read made me even more proud to be her namesake. Reading the letter also made me realize without a doubt the positive influence she had on Dad and why he felt it important to communicate by letter with me after I left for college.
With my grandmother’s letter in hand, I have something tangible of both Dad and my grandmother. I am able to touch an item they each held and to read my grandmother’s thoughts as captured on paper. Writing letters was a wonderful act of love that my grandmother performed for Dad and that Dad in turn did for me. What a lasting legacy I have of each of them from letters they penned.
Why not make your own legacy for a loved one? Commit your thoughts and feelings to paper in a letter. It may take longer to write a letter than to communicate electronically, but a letter will last longer not only in your hand, but also in your heart.