My first pen pal was my cousin Julia. In 1977, we lived on opposite ends of Long Island but wrote as if we were a world away. Our letters, written on Ziggy stationary or Holly Hobbie letterhead, dissected all the most important issues in our lives: Had we finished reading the latest Judy Blume book? Who was cuter: Andy Gibb or Shaun Cassidy? We decorated our envelopes with rainbow puffy stickers, slapped on the 13-cent stamp, and couldn’t wait for a reply.
Then things got serious.
Julia’s parents divorced and my family moved across the country. Our letters took on a more somber tone as we two 10-year olds tried to make sense of our sadness, isolation, and lonliness. Eventually, the notes tapered off and other friendships formed, but looking back on it…that was the beginning of my life-long love of letter—letters to and from friends, relatives, loves and loves gone by. Those connections were, and remain, a source of support, kindness, and humor.
I started thinking seriously about letters again recently when my 18-year old niece said she’d never gotten a handwritten love letter. She said, “No one sends snail mail!”
For the first time in awhile, I was glad to be middle-aged…having grown up just before computers, cell phones, facebook and emails. The only high-tech messages we sent back then were silly words spelled out on digital calculators and snickered over during math class.
Like many of you, I’ve got old letters stashed in boxes around my house. They are a collection of conversations spanning decades. I took them out while working on this project and re-read them. The drawings, handwriting, poems and postmarks took me back to exactly the time, place and person they were from. I’ve lost some of those people over the years… with others, I’ve simply lost touch. But the sentiments were strong reminders of what brought us together in the first place. I’m not so sure that comes across in an email or text message.
I struggled with the newsworthiness of this assignment. After all, what makes the demise of the handwritten letter something to write home about? But then I started meeting people like 84-year-old Magdalen Fisher and journalist Dana Canedy. Both women loved quiet men—men who they say were not overly expressive—and yet these men were prolific letter-writers.
Magdalen’s love story started in 1945. She met a man named George who went off to war. Like many young women of that time, she started a correspondence with that soldier… one that produced hundreds of letters and ultimately, a wedding, children, grandchildren, and a marriage lasting more than 60 years. Since he died in 2008, George’s love letters have helped pull her back out of the grief, and helped her recall all their good times together.
I visited with Magdalen in Pittsburgh recently. The letters are a work of art: faded paper filled with the loveliest words in flawless handwriting, and air-mail envelopes wrapped with red ribbons.
Journalist Dana Canedy has a war story which also involves handwritten letters. Her fiancé, Sgt. Charles Monroe King, was killed in a roadside bombing in Iraq in 2006. Before he died, Sgt. King wrote letters to their baby son, Jordan, whom he had met just once. The letters contained heartfelt life lessons on how to be an honorable man. Within the letters, Sgt. King told Jordan everything about himself…it was as if he knew he might not make it back alive. When the worst happened, Dana took solace in those notes… turning them into a book called A Journal for Jordan. She says without those letters, Jordan might never have a clear picture of the great man his father was.
I met so many remarkable people during this project…all with different motivations for writing and saving letters. I was surprised and honored they chose to share their often intimate stories with me. Some wanted to re-kindle romance, strengthen friendships, or simply say “sorry” when times got tough. I even found young people from the texting generation…kids like tween twins Julia and Eve March… who cherish notes their parents sent them at summer camp.
The bottom line is, letters matter. They are a legacy of our relationships and while it's tough keeping track of the rising price of stamps, the cost is secondary to the gift of getting something someone took the time to write. But when you think about it, the gift is also for the giver—it’s in the writing of the letter, the sitting down and meditating on that special someone before signing off with Sincerely, All the Best, Yours Truly, Friends Forever, or if you are very, very, lucky, All My Love Always.