The Demise of Letter-Writing

By Lustbader, Wendy | Aging Today, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

The Demise of Letter-Writing


Lustbader, Wendy, Aging Today


Aging Today is pleased to present the following essay, which is adapted from Wendy Lustbader's afterword to Glorious Adventure (Rochester, N. Y: Pioneer Network in Culture Change, 2008), eldercare advocate Carter Catlett Williams ' memoir about a daughter who discovers her father only through a discovered cache of letters. For more information and to order the book, visit the publisher's website, www.pioneernet work.net.

While in her early 70s, my friend Carter Catlett Williams found a treasure trove of letters written by her father who died when she was not quite two years old. The letters, in a box in her attic, had been stored for decades. Carter spent several years reading, transcribing and responding to these letters, an undertaking that led to her memoir, Glorious Adventure. During mis process, she forged a living relationship with her famer: in his letters, he had left enough of himself behind so she truly could know him. How can words inscribed on yellowing paper have this kind of power? Another friend recently read the daily letters her father had sent to her mother during his World War II military service, getting a feel for the sensitive, passionate side of the restrained man who had raised her and later slipped into Alzheimer's disease. I am afraid that such life-changing reclamations may disappear from our human history should letter-writing cease.

ONLY FOR ODDBALLS?

Handwritten letters are becoming a thing of the past. Though most everyone delights in discovering a letter in the mailbox among the bills, those numbers of us who actually write letters are dwin- dling. We oddballs like to scribble droughts on paper, address an enve- lope and affix a stamp. We find satisfaction in hearing the thump of the mailbox lid, the start of a let- ter's journey that culminates in a loved one's pleasure.

We have e-mail now, but it has little in common with the handwritten letter. The myth that e-mail can take the place of hand-composed mail is weakening whatever inclinations toward letter-writing still exist

It is true that e-mail from dear friends can be printed out and given the heft of paper. I have done this, placing each email in a file folder labeled with the friend's name. But I prefer my shabby boxes filled with 30 years' worth of letters from these same friends. When I open them, envelopes of different colors and shapes, stamps of all varieties and postmarks greet me. I see my name written in familiar handwriting, addressed to past domiciles, and I am transported back to my life's earlier eras. However, when I open a file folder of accumulated e-mail, I remain unmoved by those pages of bloodless, typed uniformity.

Handwriting can tie us to our beloveds like nothing else. Somehow it calls forth the person more than photographs or video clips. I become tearful when I glimpse the envelope containing the birthday card my Aunt Judy sent me a few days before she died. I have plenty of photos of her, but seeing "Dear Wendy" penned in her handwriting is bittersweet; not so long ago, her hand wrote my name.

"DEAR, DEAR MOTHER"

People who e-mail almost never bother to fashion a greeting beyond "Hi," and many do not even use a closing salutation. "Dear, dear Mother" is how Carter's father addressed his mother, writing to her from boarding school at age 1 6. Often, he closed his letters home with "A heart full of love, Carter." Most e-mails halt abruptly with a final sentence, as though signing off with a name attached to a sentiment is just too retro. I find that ending a note to a friend with "Love, Wendy" is an occasion for tenderness, even in the most rushed or utilitarian e-mail.

E-mail is easy. It's about hurry and transience. I can dash off thoughts to a friend and send them instantaneously. This writing is actually much closer to speaking than die old kind of letter- writing. It is spontaneous utterance, as opposed to sitting with pen in hand while reflecting on how to convey what is in one's heart. …

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