One of the pleasures of life is walking to the edge of my front yard, opening the hinged jaw of the black metal mailbox, reaching into its cavernous mouth and retrieving the day’s mail.
There’s hardly ever anything worth my time, particularly in the 11 months preceding the December onslaught, when Christmas cards arrive bearing goodwill, glad tidings and photographs of people I love but don’t see as often as I should. In the off-season, the more interesting stuff tends to be housewares catalogs— oooh, window shopping from the comfort of my living room! — or junk mail advertising cheap acreage in Tennessee. Rare is the bill that doesn’t arrive in my electronic in-box instead.
Nonetheless I am forever willing to be surprised by what the postman brings. Too bad the surprise is so infrequent. I can’t remember the last time I got a letter. Worse: I can’t remember the last time I mailed one.
I run my life, both the professional and the personal, via email. Texts are essential to communicate with my grown children, and Skype and FaceTime are convenient substitutes for the cross-town or cross-country visit. Yet, call me old-fashioned, label me out of date, but I still believe nothing is as intimate, as uplifting, as refreshing, as a letter.
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Though handwriting adds a personal flair that is much appreciated in a keyboard-dominated world, I’m not picky that way, mainly because I type much, much faster than I scribble. And frankly, legible handwriting is as uncommon as a downtown parking space.
I may have abandoned this old form of communication, but like many my age, particularly those of us infatuated with the written word, I was raised on the pithy postscript — P.S. I always saved my best line for last — and the “Dear So-and-So” salutation. For all its emoticons, email simply can’t match that.
What was once an integral part of my life is now completely unfamiliar to the next generation. My youngest son, for example, was recently baffled by the necessity of a return address on an envelope. He had never had to post a letter or mail a bill that required paper, pen and postage.
Even as I’ve stopped writing them, I’m partial to letters in the same way some of us wax nostalgic about vinyl records, rotary telephones and metal lunchboxes. Retro is popular when you can be selective. In the case of letters, most of us associate at least one missive with a happy event.
I wrote my first book, chapter by chapter, in an epistolary flurry when I was in junior high school. We were then living thousands of miles away, in a South American country with no television and spotty long-distance phone service. The book, by the way, was embarrassingly terrible. I hope my cousin in Chicago tossed it out along with her electric curlers.
As a child, I also kept up occasional correspondence with another cousin who lived in my family’s village in Catalonia, Spain, and over time we developed a long-distance relationship that endures to this day. Two of her children have stayed with us during their travels, and I’ve visited her several times. Alas, email is now our favored method of communication.
No matter. Later today, as the heat recedes and the summer light wanes, I will cross the expanse of lawn, forever hopeful. I will remember a line the inveterate letter-writer and poet Emily Dickinson penned to a friend: “A Letter is a Joy of Earth/ It is denied the Gods.”