I can’t remember the last time I received a personal letter in the mail.
We don’t have mail delivered to our door in our rural location, but when I turn the key in our post office box, I know exactly what I will find: Advertisements, junk mail and trash. Insurance forms, maybe a bill or two. It’s as if the whole world spews up vomit into my mailbox.
If it were up to me, I’d probably check the post office box about once a month. And then I’d forget for months at a time, the box would become stuffed with garbage, and the post office would start returning mail to sender because the box was full. Ah, that sounds lovely! You send me trash? Back at ya, losers!
My wife, however, is addicted to snail mail. She absolutely has to drive to the post office and check the box every day. She is disappointed if a day goes by without any mail for us. She hates federal holidays because… no mail!
I fail to see the point. Anyone who wants to contact me sends me an email or a text. Except for my parents, the only people who still use a telephone to call me because, well, they don’t do technology.
When was the last time you received a handwritten letter from anyone? You know, sent the old-fashioned way, where you have to affix a postage stamp and drop it in a mailbox? Sorry, birthday cards don’t count.
Back in December, I did receive a Christmas letter from a friend with whom I had lost touch. I felt badly because he was informing me that he and his wife had divorced.
But before that? I haven’t a clue. It must have been years since I’ve received a letter.
Part of the reason for this is technology, of course. It takes days for a letter to make its way through the mails. Why wait when you can send an email or a text and have it arrive in a matter of seconds? And who wants to go through the hassle of going to a mailbox or a post office? Plus, email is free! My young nephew, who was laid off from his job recently, informed us that he hadn’t sent in the documentation needed to receive unemployment benefits because he didn’t have the money to buy a stamp. See what I mean?
Another part of this equation, I believe, is that we no longer have the patience and writing skills necessary to compose personal letters. Just think of it! You have to find a sheet of paper and an envelope and a pen. And then you have to think of something to say.
Perhaps you do have something to say. But it’s something like “Are you free for lunch on Wednesday?” or “Hey, come check out my new blog!” Back in Victorian England, notes such as these might show up via post. In our modern world, however, no one would bother to write a letter to express such brief thoughts.
Or for any other reason, for that matter.
If you want to discuss the pros and cons of dumping your skanky boyfriend or tell your friend about the cute things your baby is doing, you’ll probably go for a phone call. Either that or you’ll post a pithy remark on Facebook. My wife tells me that entire family feuds go on over F-Book.
I keep hearing that people can’t write a coherent sentence anymore, much less string together enough sentences and paragraphs to compose a letter. Perhaps it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” Letter-writing has become technologically obsolete, so we lose the skills that writing letters requires.
I grew up in the Stone Age, before the advent of personal computers and cell phones; letter-writing, while past its heyday, was still common. I learned to write letters by watching my mother write letters. I remember being five years old and trying to copy the loops and swoops of her neat cursive (called “script” back then). Before my mother was born, letters regularly went back and forth between immigrants arriving in America and their parents and siblings back home in Europe. But she grew up during World War II, when letters were strongly associated with sons fighting far away in foreign lands and writing home to Mom and Dad. Some parents wrote to their boys each week, faithfully, until they came home or a gold star was solemnly placed in the window.
When my mother was barely a teenager, living at home in New York City, her older sister took a train to the west coast to work in San Francisco. We have family stories about my mom and grandma sitting down at the kitchen table to write her letters every week.
In my day, many kids learned to write letters while they were away at summer camp. The counselors would always expect the campers to stretch out on their bunks and write home once a week. I myself learned to write letters because I couldn’t wait to see my grandparents who lived a 2½ hour drive away in Connecticut. Writing a letter was the next best thing to being there. Once I got the hang of it, however, I wanted to write to everyone, from people I saw every day to people whom I barely knew. I would routinely begin them with “How are you? I am fine!” Then I’d relate every little thing I could think of, from my favorite cartoons to a recent stomach ache.
My maternal grandfather remarried when I was about six years old (not long after Grandma passed on), and his new wife had two grown sons, one of whom loved to travel. He used to tell me that his goal was to visit every nation on earth. He probably succeeded, too. Knowing how I loved fancy stamps from exotic countries, he’d send me post cards from places I’d barely heard of. His tag line was always the same: “There goes Global Sobel!” It was always exciting when one of his post cards showed up in our mailbox.
When I was about eight years old or so, I was disappointed when my maiden aunt (great-aunt, really), whose fancy accountant’s adding machine and elegant high-rise apartment on West 57th Street I adored, moved to south Florida. We immediately struck up a long-distance correspondence via U.S. Mail. I loved receiving her letters on fancy perfumed stationery. And I wrote back to her all the gory details of my life, including, much to my mother’s consternation, the blow-by-blow of my parents’ constant screaming arguments. Of course, if there was any game or book I wanted and couldn’t wheedle out of my parents, I simply wrote to Aunt Iris and asked for it. She would always oblige by sending something my way (A package in the mail! Just for me!), although rarely the exact item I had requested. I’d ask for a Scrabble set and Jeopardy! would show up on the doorstep. I’d ask for a Bible and would unwrap a prayer book. The poor woman tried!
Then my beloved grandparents moved to Florida as well, starting yet another wave of letters back and forth from New York to the Sunshine State. Often, when I finished my letter, I’d hand it off to my sisters to write a few lines at the bottom. Sometimes they’d add our cat’s name at the very end, lest any member of the family be left out.
Among my favorite letter stories involves the time we moved about an hour away and changed schools. My sister and I both found ourselves attending John Jay High School, she a freshman and me a junior. When I finished my latest later to my grandparents and passed it to my sister, she added a few lines of her own, including the statement “John Jay is great!” When the letter arrived in Florida, my grandmother quickly got on the phone with my Dad. “Who the heck is John Jay?” she demanded, thinking my thirteen year old sister had picked up some kind of boyfriend of whom she was particularly proud.
Even in my college days, during the summers I’d write letters to friends who I missed. After graduation, I briefly corresponded with two of them who had gone overseas, one to work in Germany and the other to toil in the Peace Corps in central Africa. As time goes on, however, our friendships of younger days tend to recede into the past, and the letters slowly petered out.
And when I wrote back to my friend who sent me the Christmas letter, I realized that this was the first personal letter I had written in many, many years.
My college student niece, whose little one we babysit while she is busy at classes, recently asked my wife and me for a favor. She recalled how, when she was just a bit of a thing, she cherished the letters that my wife would write to her. When our grandniece starts to read, she asked, could we please send her letters through the mail so that she can experience the same excitement of opening and reading them?
You can count on it, my dear.