My 14-year-old daughter writes me letters from summer camp. Some are on green 3 by 5 cards, some written with a pink marker, some come in envelopes with doodles and clues about what is within. One was written on a riflery range target with bullet holes in it.
I have written her, too, about what is going on at home (mostly nothing), our dogs, our upcoming trip to Canada, her college-age brother's comings and goings, and her sister's acquisition of her driver's license. She writes to me about dances and sailing, her bubbly handwriting intimating joy, the oversized and overused exclamation points speaking to the exuberance of her age. It is nice to get these letters, though the meager news she provides barely justifies my anticipation.
After my mother passed away a few years ago, I came upon a cache of letters that passed between her and her father, and letters from a boyfriend serving in the Army Air Force during World War II. The letters between father and daughter describe gardening and work, and a pervading sense of the era. "You might as well get used to being scared," he wrote to his 18-year-old in 1945. "The fact is that most everybody is really scared most of the time…" The letters between my mother and her boyfriend are alternately romantic and playful, yet there is also a subtext of the unknown. On more than one occasion, the young pilot writes to her that he doesn't know where he will be in a month or six months, that he hopes to see her when he gets a day of leave — though the date is left uncertain.
I hang onto these letters and look at them from time to time. I have letters from my father, an old girlfriend, birthday cards and anniversary notes from my wife that I read and re-read. As I grow older, I look at things a little bit differently; the prism of time alters my view of events and people. I glean much from the paper itself. Holding a letter in my hand, looking at the differences in my daughter's handwriting — loopy or blocky, in pencil and marker — while my mother's letters show the graceful cursive of her artist's hand as well as the imprint of her lipstick on a 65-year-old love letter. I never knew her father, but his letters are warm, frequently written on onionskin or RCA letterhead, and sent in air mail envelopes of the lightest weight so as to save a few pennies in a frugal time.
I doubt that anyone will hold onto my hard drive or make data copies of the thousands of e-mails I have written over the years. No son or daughter of mine will sit in an attic or at a kitchen table with my old laptop trying to empathize with me, circa 2010. For most of us, our children and grandchildren won't have the experience of holding a letter actually touched by their lover's or grandparents' hands — they won't feel the impression of pen on paper or note a tightly closed loop in a cursive "L" that indicates tension, or a crossed-out word showing a change of heart.
Don't get me wrong: I use email every day of my life and enjoy it — it is efficient, cheap and probably fits very well under the category of sustainability. Though I am a letter writer, I write fewer and fewer each year, and I get fewer, too; camp will end and, with it, letters from my daughter.
Aside from thank-yous, condolence cards and my daughter's "Dear Family"-type notes, letter writing has died at the cool hand of technology. E-mail, cell phones and Skype have replaced some of the need for us to write, but there is something subtle about a letter in another's hand. A letter-writer is careful, more careful than one dashing off an email or a text message — a letter is deeply personal, generally not intended or likely to be forwarded. The letter-writer seeks words patiently, writing them out and occasionally embellishing them with small details that e-mail cannot manage: my daughter's doodles in the margins; the water color on a letter that a girlfriend sent to me on a piece of torn artist's paper; the word "Deceased" written in the Postmaster's script on an envelope returned to my mother in July 1945. E-mail will never be an adequate substitute for this intimate human connection.
The British folk rocker Richard Thompson sings: "She danced on my head like Arthur Murray / the scars ain't never gonna mend in a hurry / Just when I thought I could learn to forget her / right through the door, come-a tear-stained letter." Richard Thompson's tear-stained letter moved him in the same way that riflery range letter from my daughter moves me, in a way that the best e-mail never will. I'll hold onto my daughter's letters and look back and remember exactly how I felt this summer, about letters, growing up and moving on.
Stephen B. Awalt is an attorney in Baltimore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.