Monday, January 18, 2010
I received a box from my aunt of letters my mother had sent her over the years. Each letter detailed events from her life and the lives of her five children. They gave me great insight into how my mother regarded our development into adults and our various achievements along that road. With five children our family hummed with activities. My two oldest brothers did a year or two of Little League, but for the most part we were the science fair, poetry contest, film competition kind of kids. I did ski competitively for a few years, which I loved and which took me to some interesting locations, but I also did forensics, writing contests, flute, piano, and guitar, singing, and acting, excelling at only a few of these, which you'd never have guessed by how my mother cooed over each of my recitals or minor stage roles.
Recently my youngest brother and his wife had a baby. They announced it via email and with the click of the reply button I sent my congratulations and some auntly advice. Then I got to thinking about those letters my mother used to write. With the advent of email and now text messages and twitter, we certainly haven't given up on the written word, but we have made it more transitory. I doubt any of us regularly print off our text or tweet logs. Few of us save those emails from family and friends. We write them, read them, and then vaporize them to make room for more.
One might argue that such facilities promote more regular communication which is a good thing. But I would argue it doesn't promote the legacy of communication that letters provide. While I can mentally catalogue many of the amazing events in my children's lives, I can't bequeath my heartfelt reactions. We have some evidence of achievements in the form of certificates, news articles, pictures and trophies, but no real evidence of my pride in them not just for the wins but for the attempts. I realized this when I read my mom's letters. Every one of my attempts whether or not they resulted in ski victories or poetry wins earned a chronicled place in my mother's letters. The tiniest moment of my life, now forgotten, has come back to make me feel the pride my mother felt. Decades later, I am touched. The connection I have to my mom renews itself in the reading of those letters. I have not left a similar legacy to my children, and I regret it. They don't have any tangible reminder of how proud I was of all their efforts.
Likewise, I don't have any collected works of letters to and from my brothers I can pass on to my nieces and nephews. I read an email, I may even forward it to my husband or to another brother, and then it eventually fades into the queue of my "read" emails and at some point completely vanishes. So when my middle brother writes about my namesake niece's work in a DNA lab, the evident pride of his words are now gone. I should have printed the email off, but I never thought of it because the very nature of cyber communication is the ease with which it comes and goes. With a single keystroke we can make it appear and make it disappear. We don't need to hunt for stamps, envelopes, and writing paper. We don't need elegant leather bound address books that show the history of our relatives' and friends' life journeys with each move scribbled tightly into any available space. Now they could move a thousand times, but their email address lasts forever.
A corollary to our ephemeral communication is our fascination with our digital and video cameras. While the cliché "a picture is worth a thousand words" may have some validity, I disagree when it comes to passing on how you felt about the person in the photograph. We can take a picture of a goal, our child playing the piano, the blurred streak of riding a bike without training wheels, or the sweet smile and new backpack on the first day of school, but the picture doesn't convey a personal message from the photographer to the subject. The photos and videos are so easily created and just as easily discarded that they lose the impact of being special.
Perhaps letters have become communication dinosaurs, but I could have kept a diary for each of my sons so they would have a record of what I felt each time I experienced something in their lives such as school dramas or soccer tournaments. I have very inelegant handwriting. I'm embarrassed by how bad my penmanship actually is, but I realize that it's a part of my character that I can pass on as a thread tying together generations. While my mastery at typing allows me to win more easily at word games on line and avoid confusion as to whether I wrote "affect" or "effect," it does little to distinguish me at a quick glance from any other writer. But we all recognize one another's handwriting nearly instantly.
I'd like to make a proposal for returning to a more permanent and personal form of communication. As your children grow and venture out into the world, record those adventures and your reaction to them in a way that will persist with the gravity and personality that writing permits. You can still share experiences via a quick text, "Mia scored the winning goal!" but also give yourself the luxury of expanding on that achievement with more details of how you felt and what your child showed at the moment. If you don't write letters to relatives, write letters to your children so that years later they can discover how significantly the smallest event played out in your life. They will be able to touch the paper you wrote upon and see the movement of your pen as you documented it nearly contemporaneously. They will be able to put the letters away and bring them back out because they exist with the same permanence as furniture or homes.
I encourage each of us to set down the digital camera, the cellular phone, the wireless computer, and the Blackberry, and take a few minutes each week to write down with pen and paper what happened that week with the kids and how proud you were of them. It's a special legacy that parents have had available for centuries and can continue to provide for centuries into the future. When Bill Gates promotes our paperless society I can promise you that his children would rather be grasping a tome of letters he wrote than a flash drive found in the bottom of a safe deposit box. There is something vital and engaging about a letter written or even scrawled. It embodies the smells, the oils, the movements, the thoughts, the emotions and even the soul of the writer which brings comfort and connection to anyone who holds that paper. Our written words can be a hand that reaches through the years to offer a gentle caress to the hearts of our children.