Sunday, April 15, 2007

Paper, Pen and a Stamp, the Romance of the Letter.

In 1969 I learned something in elementary school that has stayed with me over these nearly 36 years. I learned a lesson in what was newly named in “language arts”, (no longer known as English,) a lesson invaluable , it was known as, “friendly letter,” writing. I have enjoyed the lessons that I have learned about this craft and I've found great pleasure over the years in letter writing.

Letter writing, be it my hand or by machine is a truly lost art. With the dawn of the telephone, the popularity of letter writing began to ebb and now with the cell phone, e mail and text messaging, letter writing has gone the way of all flesh and has been replaced with methods of communication that even has its own secret code.

In 1969, I was a fourth grader and as part of our grammar and penmanship lessons we were assigned an exercise; write a letter to a relative or friend that could not be handed to them, it had to be mailed because addressing the envelope properly was part of the lesson. I wrote a letter to my grandparents in Florida and explained that it was a school assignment and that a response would improve my grade.

I mentioned penmanship, contrary to the thoughts of contemporary elementary school children, penmanship is not a funny named floating vessel. We had books that had writing assignments in in them, the books instructed how to sit, where the paper should be placed and even went to the extreme of saying where one's feet should be placed. For some reason I took the lessons more seriously than many of my classmates. I've been told that I have the handwriting of a third grade school teacher. When I received this compliment I simply said, “Thank you, what a nice thing to say, I take pride in it.” I really don't know for sure that they meant it as a compliment or not. Through the years my handwriting has remained clear and crisp, like the lessons taught in school, but it has also taken on elements of my personality as well.

Several years ago my cousin, Grace, passed away at age 102. We called her Aunt Grace as an honor more befitting her age. She was reared before the age of the commonality of the telephone, letter writing was the means of communication that was the means of the day. While sorting through the residue of her life I learned that the art of letter writing was something she practiced her entire life. I found post cards that were a penny, postage included; these cards contained more information on a small space than many people put on greeting cards three times the size today. Some of the post cards I found had recipes, cooking instructions and the latest news...all on the same card. The cards were mailed from the county seat, geographically in the center to the western edge what could easily be a twenty minute drive now. There were all kinds of letters in her collection, along with greeting cards that held lengthy notes and photographs and there were regular “friendly letters,” as well.

A letter is a simple gift on paper. It usually contains information from the heart that might not be included in a telephone conversation. I had a long love affair shared on paper with my father's eldest sister, my Aunt Lucretta. In fact, I have each of the letters she sent, many years worth. They are stacked and tied with a satin ribbon, just like the letters that secret lovers have in the old black and white movies that I love so. My Grandma Bryant would write from Florida many years I wrote letters to my Uncle Gaylord. None of these letters will end up in a museum, but they are precious to me. I have a stack of cards and notes that my friend Alice wrote, she lived in Olympia, Washington until her death several years ago. For a long time the letters between us were tucked into cards with sunflowers on them, a tribute to the way that we met and the discussion we had that they always had their face to the sun. Aunt Lucretta and Alice are gone now, they live on in my mind each time I pick up a pen to write a letter.

When Aunt Grace passed away I informed her niece by marriage, Page, by letter. We have written occasionally now over a period of several years. We share news, memories of the one we held in common, tales of our family and what is going on in our lives at present. There has been announcements of new arrivals in our families and unfortunately Aunt Grace's passing is not the only one that we have spoken of. I love to receive a letter from Page, her life in New York City seems so much more exciting than mine here in Indianapolis. She travels abroad, attends the opera and visits her friends abroad. I so enjoy hearing of her latest read and have been known to ask what book is on the table next to her favorite chair. It's fun to hear what she's been reading, where she's been going, what she's been doing. In her letters, I would enjoy reading about a trip to the market because I know that it is different there than here.

In her most recent letter she spoke of seeing the spring flowers ablaze in Central Park as she walked through the park to attend the opera. A life so different than mine that it seems more like news from a foreign country or a few leaves from a wonderfully written novel, not the story of life four states to the east.

When I would correspond with Alice in Olympia I heard about trips to the ballet and little winter jaunts to Hawaii, mentioned with the casualness that a Hoosier would mention driving to Florida for a week. For them, it was the same, only the drive, well, you know. I heard about the cacophony of colorful baskets of Cosmos and Statice that was carried in by the farmers at the open air markets in summer. I heard how the farmers would set bushel baskets of peaches and green beans next to the flowers, food for body and soul. She always mentioned that no tomato on that market there tasted like the ones grown in her home state of Indiana. She spoke of weekend trips to Seattle where she and her husband would tuck away in a hotel and take in the ballet or a play, dine somewhere different than the places at home. Her life with Bob sounded as different than on the west coast as Page's does on the east. All so very different than the life I live in the Midwest.

Surely a letter is a gift on paper that may well be the most inexpensive one that can be given. It is a gift of the heart, it is often just a report of what is simply going on in one's life, but it is sharing experience and history and often the love of family and friends. It's great to know what someone is reading these days, what the latest dish is being served elsewhere, the part that touches my heart is the sitting down in a bit of quietness and putting ink on paper and being a part of one another's life be it like Aunt Grace writing to Aunt Minnie half way across the county or how Page and Alice have shared with me the excitement of their lives though it may seem very every day to them, it's literature to me.

Where is my paper, my pen and my address book? I've worked myself up to writing a letter.


Anonymous Gaylord said...

Every week, I delight in reading the words and thoughts of my precious nephew. He tells me new and wonderful things about his life. Stories of his childhood and our family, that I never knew living so far from his home. I feel selfish in that I want to share his words with everyone I know. And I do share them with friends and family but I suppose I want the whole world to enjoy them. If you are reading my words now, you are one of the lucky ones. God Bless Don

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Keith said...

I also enjoy his writings. I have always enjoyed the stories of your family as well. I miss the days when I heard them spoken to me while sitting with Don at home, in the car going somewhere, or having lunch after church on Sunday. I am glad to have the opportunity to read the stories and the new ones as well. Take care dear friend and keep writing!

5:27 PM  
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