Thursday, March 29, 2012

E-mail vs. Letters

I spent most of the morning yesterday writing letters. Letters on real stationary that fit into real envelopes and required real postage stamps.

Actual handwritten letters.

I admit this isn’t an every-day occurrence. Most of my family members have e-mail, and we communicate via that or phone. The same is true for most of my friends.

But I have some friends and relatives who, for one reason or another, don’t or can’t use computers. Like an older cousin who lives in a nursing home. And a friend whose health problems make it difficult for her to type. These folks are my U.S. Postal Service buddies, people who enjoy getting my occasional card or letter.

Letter writing was important back when I was a kid. My grandparents on my father’s side lived out-of-state. Like most men, my dad wasn’t fond of letter writing, but twice a month my mom would sit down with him at the kitchen table and dictate a letter to his parents, which he dutifully posted in his own handwriting before tossing it in the mailbox. My grandmother may have suspected the truth, but I think she appreciated her son’s efforts anyway.

While in school, I’d sent cards to my grandparents for their birthdays and holidays, but that was about it. It wasn’t until after I married that I wrote more regularly to them. And it was all because Fred and I had bought a house, and my love affair with gardening was well under way.

You see, my grandmother’s garden was something to behold, a veritable paradise of roses and lilies and all sorts of other flowering plants she’d received for birthdays and anniversaries and had transplanted into her backyard. Everything seemed to flourish for her, and I wondered how she did it. My first gardening questions to her were quickly answered in a long letter penned with a firm hand. Over the years her handwriting became shakier and her letters shorter, but her mind remained clear to the end. She’s been gone many years now, but her good advice can be seen in the results of my own gardening efforts.

More importantly to me, it was through those letters that I learned to appreciate a person I’d never really liked as a child. You see, when I was a kid, I only got to see my dad’s parents once a year, during summer when we made what I called the “annual pilgrimage” to Kansas City. In my eyes, they were ancient even back then. I recall my grandfather as being a gentle and rather quiet old man who rarely moved out of his easy chair and always smelled of the fragrant cherry tobacco he packed in his burnished briar pipe.

I remember my grandmother quite differently. A short woman, she walked with a decided limp and wore a perpetual scowl that, quite frankly, scared me into silence any time I was around her. She wasn’t unkind, but she was definitely not the hugging type of grandma boasted of by other kids my age.

It was only when I was much older that I learned she’d suffered a hip fracture as a young woman, a hip fracture that never healed properly and left her in constant pain. That scowl on her face was actually a grimace of pain that accompanied every step she took.

She might not have had the sunniest disposition in the world, but my grandmother wasn’t trying to be scary. She was just hurting all the time. Through her letters I met the woman I never knew as a child, a woman I came to understand over time.

Maybe the result would have been the same if we’d had email back then. Maybe we could have communicated just as fully via computer as through our handwritten letters. But somehow I think it would have been different. I wouldn’t have caught the shakiness of her handwriting as she grew frailer with age. I wouldn’t have seen the little ink blots and scratched out words that frequented her last few letters. And I wouldn’t have felt her as I did each time I held a newly delivered envelope with her name in the corner.

And so even though I mainly use email today, there are times when only an honest-to-goodness handwritten letter works for me. How about you?

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