Listen to the episode (0:11:55)
For three years, while my grandfather was in the South Pacific during World War II, he and my grandmother wrote letters to each other every day. One of my most vivid memories of the weekend of his memorial in 1993 is of me and my cousins sitting in the parlor of his home, reading those letters.
For hours we sat on the threadbare Persian rug, boxes open and letters sprawled out among us, reading, mostly to ourselves but every now and then out loud when someone came across a passage that was particularly beautiful. The sheer volume of their correspondence was awe-inspiring, and a testament to their commitment to each other, their faith in the future, as well as their underlying uncertainty about whether or not that horrible war would ever end and their letters would be all that was left of the life they had promised to share with one another.
It was more than any one of us could digest in one sitting.
What I took away from the letters I did read was the power of the love my grandparents had for each other. Gramper was a doctor in the Army, so he didn’t see the frontline; just the aftermath. He didn’t write much about what he saw in the letters, not in any great detail. It goes without saying what he witnessed was gruesome. In all the years I spent with him for Thanksgiving and summer visits, not once did he talk about the war. I have come to learn that this is quite common among veterans, especially WWII vets. They just didn’t talk about what they saw in common company, and certainly never in front of children.
While progress has been made in this department — to a degree, the number of soldiers who don’t talk about the atrocities of war still outnumber those who do.
What he wrote about most was how much he cherished my grandmother, and his children, how much he missed them, how he looked forward to the day he would come home to be a husband, father, and community doctor again. Granny wrote about daily things, how the kids were doing, and the letters weren’t always very long. Just a page or two of conversation, anchors to hold onto in an uncertain sea of political upheaval.
Would my beloved ever come home? was a question I imagine Granny asked every single day as she busied herself with keeping the house and being a mother to my Dad and aunt, who were both under five during Gramper’s deployment.
Would I ever see my wife and children again? was most certainly his.
After reconnecting with a friend from college a few years ago, I got to thinking about the power of letters — real letters, mind you, the kind you write on paper with a pen and seal in an addressed stamped envelope and drop in a mailbox. In our brief email exchange, I let him know how great it was to see he is doing well, with a family, living life as we all hope to live. I also told him I still had all the letters he wrote to me when I was working in Alaska during the summers between college semesters.
His reply was, “Funny how times change. Do you think that in another 20 years we will still be saving all of our emails and facebook stuff?”
His question gave me pause. In 20 years, I wonder, will Facebook even be around? Or will the landscape of social networking as we know it today be completely unrecognizable in 2034 to us current active users? If a master system fails somewhere, and all our data is lost, then the point of saving anything electronic is moot. Also, and call me old-school, an email or a comment on Facebook will never be in the same league as a handwritten letter sealed in an envelope that came in the mail with a post-marked stamp on it that someone took the time to sit down and actually write.
The ease of staying instantly connected is certainly valuable in an era when we are all so busy and live everywhere on the planet. I imagine it’s been the saving grace for thousands of soldiers and their families during deployment. Our communications with loved ones are created and received in seconds, not days, weeks, months, or in some cases, years. We are grateful for the quick note, the “I’m thinking of you” or “I’m still alive” as we move about our business. These gestures of thoughtfulness can buoy us through an otherwise cluttered life of information and time-commitment overload.
I think about the sailors in the days of Magellan and Captain Cook who didn’t hear from loved ones for years, or possiby ever, and how even a brief word from a loved one back home could have saved some of them from going mad.
Even as recently as 100 years ago, letters took days to reach their destinations, and to people living in that time, days seemed like a huge improvement over the past! I am sure Granny’s letters to Gramper and his to her took a week or more to arrive. By writing at least one every day, you assured your loved one would never go without, at least for very long.
But in my opinion, we have traded something irreplaceable and of tremendous value for speed and convenience, something my grandparents knew, and certainly many of us old enough to know a world before the Internet know, when writing letters was the only way to send our private thoughts to people we care about. Every now and then I have been known to print an email from someone and tuck it away in a special box I use for such sentimental things.
But those one-page sheets just don’t come close to what I have in that trunk in my attic. I doubt my grandchildren will be sitting around trying to retrieve old text messages from obsolete phones they find in the pile of stuff I leave behind. I mean, a string of LOLs or 143s isn’t something you are going to save and read again and again, savoring not only the meaning of the words, but also the feel of the paper in your hand, the slant or curl of the handwriting, the look of the stamp, the shape of the envelope. Reading a letter is a beautiful and private sensory experience. It takes time; we naturally have to slow down our busy pace, find a comfortable place to read it so we aren’t interrupted, and possibly give ourselves extra time to read it through more than once.
A text message or email just doesn’t render anything close to the overall effect reading a personal letter does.
I’m as much a part of this new way of communicating as anyone else, guilty-as-charged, and don’t write real letters much anymore. I still send cards for special occasions, with quick hand-written notes inside, but the days of sitting down and composing letters in long-hand are behind me now. Even on the rare occasion when I do write letters, I type them on the computer, print them, and then send them out because I can type and correct mistakes a hell of a lot faster than I can on monogrammed stationery.
It’s part of progress, I suppose, (a need for speed?) and a natural reflection of the changing times. But a piece of my heart aches for what has been lost, and there are times when just as I long for another chance to sit at the table at 24 Forest Street with Gramper, I also long for the return of letter-writing the way it used to be, if only for the intimate connectedness between writer and receiver that is inherently part of such a thing.
On this Veteran’s Day, when I remember my grandfather and the service he gave for his country, as well as honor all the men and women who have also served, are serving now, and will serve in the future, this is my letter to you. Thank you. And God bless.
If you enjoyed the show, be sure to subscribe in iTunes and leave me a review! Thank you!