Most of us have places in our houses where we keep old letters from family and friends. And I do mean old, because most of us have long-since switched to communicating through the Internet. I like to occasionally take out and look at some of my old letters. It’s like looking through an old photograph album.
My favorites are the love letters my wife sent me when we were courting in the seventies. Laurie’s handwriting hasn’t changed at all over the years; it’s as familiar to me as her face. Old love letters are full of emotional significance. When my mother died, my brothers and I had a time of it deciding what to do with hers. Read them or burn them? We argued each side with some heat. In the end we burned them.
I also have letters from my father. Most of them he typed; some he wrote in a fast but neat cursive. All bear his gallant, emphatic signature. Sometimes he included a news clipping he thought I would find interesting. He had an uncanny way of expressing himself in his letters. Damned if I don’t actually hear his voice today when I read what he wrote to me back then.
Letters are artifacts. They are paper and ink. Every hand is personal. The shape of the writing emotes as much as what is written. We say that a certain style of stationery is business-like, or feminine, or personal. The paper may be colored or textured. A letter can be scented. We open the envelope, touched by the sender’s tongue and fingers, and like a treasure trove out come the sights, aromas, artistic script and words of our friend, or our lover.
Signatures are wonderful things. They range from the crimped to the artistic. Some people collect them. Some are worth thousands of dollars. The best ones are worth someone’s honor. In this age of digital communication, a contract of any significance must still be closed with the interested parties putting pen to paper. Our signature is our own. The very word is adopted to mean what is unique to each of us. Put to a letter it means yes, friend, this is from me to you, with all my heart.
E-mail has some of the characteristics of letters more or less, but mostly less. The issue I take with e-mail is not that it falls short of the virtues of letter writing, although it does. The problem with e-mail is intrinsic to itself, in that writing an e-mail is just too easy. What is a virtue in the world of business becomes a hazard indeed for the personal e-mail writer.
I recently received an e-mail message from a good friend. The text, in its entirety, was: “Dear Chris, How are you? Fred.” I was offended. Not only did Fred write me a non-letter and perhaps satisfy himself that he had “been in touch” with his friend Chris, but he had set on my shoulders the burden of replying. Short of writing back “Dear Fred, I’m fine. Chris,” which would have multiplied the offense, the ball was now in my court and I had none of the pleasure of truly hearing from Fred.
E-mail letters too easily become a kind of chit-system. I owe so-and-so an e-mail, and another so-and-so owes one to me. We begin sending letters like Fred’s. The writer may delude himself, but the reader is not fooled. It’s easy to write short, sloppy, superficial e-mails, and so the kind proliferates. The in-box fills up and we are possessed by the need to answer too many. We give short shrift to each in order to satisfy all.
A real letter communicates more than words. As we hold one in our hands, we know the writer gave us his full attention. The blank page he began with was for us alone. His purpose was not to get a chit out of his column but to send his thoughts to us. He took the time. He made the effort. A thoughtful, carefully-crafted, and well-edited e-mail at its best can almost equal this, but most are travesties by comparison.
I was recently given a printout of some e-mail fragments written by a man I loved who died many years ago. It was a frustrating experience in the extreme. It was like a hunger that could not be satisfied. If there is an identifiable loss in our embrace of e-mail, it is this. We are fated to forever look back now upon our long-lost loves, and hunger for that one missing morsel, a message of love we can hold in our hands. One that was caressed by our love’s hand, and literally sealed with a kiss.
Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife. He has three adult children. Chris welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.