The Christmas I was 9, I asked for a year’s supply of stamps.
I had gotten into letter-writing in a big way, inflicting long, tediously detailed missives on my grandmother and my cousin and, every now and then, one of my aunts.
I was so eager for replies that I did my best to speed up the process and once tried to send a letter by airmail to a friend who lived a few blocks away. My sister mocked me for that. (“Do you think the Postal Service is going to charter a helicopter to go from our house to hers?”)
For years now, letters have been mostly replaced by e-mail, Facebook updates and texting. I guess if speed had been what I was really after back then I should be thrilled by this, but I am not. I miss letters! I miss writing them, and I miss receiving them.
Not long ago, while rooting around in the basement of my house, I unearthed a carton that had been stashed away. Inside were hundreds and hundreds of forgotten letters — a stupendous haul.
They dated from about 1979 to 1994. There were letters from people I no longer remember — who are these Swedes I was corresponding with? Or the Coffin family in Finland? Who is Julie, this journalist in Texas?
There were letters from people I am still close to, and letters from people long gone — my father, a sister, that dear cousin.
Mostly, the letters were from family members, and mostly they were sent while traveling, because long-distance phone calls were expensive and there was no other way to stay in touch.
My parents wrote many, many letters during my father’s sabbatical, when they spent months in Switzerland and England. Turns out my father was supposed to deliver a talk at the university in Nottingham, but he learned this only after they had already left home. So he sent a rather desperate letter asking me to photocopy some articles he had written and mail them immediately to Switzerland so he could prepare.
I have no memory of this, but apparently I did as asked because the next three letters were filled with gratitude. (“His talk is saved! Thanks to you!” my mother wrote.)
Two brothers, meanwhile, wrote from their trip around the world — one letter was scrawled on thin stationery from a hotel in China. “We are in Peking,” one brother wrote. “Only here they pronounce it ‘bay-zhing.’ ”
And another brother wrote from college — oh, my, I had forgotten how dryly witty he could be on the page. His letters are hilarious.
All of these letters were written just to me, printed or scrawled or occasionally typed, stuffed into hand-addressed envelopes, often along with photographs or newspaper clippings, or (not often enough) money or checks, the envelopes decked out in colorful stamps and dark-blue Par Avion stickers, and occasionally with notes scrawled on the back. (“You and I are the only people I know who LOVE green beans!” one sister wrote after sealing the flap.)
After discovering this box, I asked friends if they missed letters or if they found e-mail to be a worthy substitute. Everyone saw it as a trade-off: e-mail is faster. It’s free. It’s more like a conversation — you can dash off one sentence in response to something, which would seem odd and terse in letter form. It doesn’t have to be crafted as carefully as a letter, which removes some of the pressure.
But the intimacy of letters is gone. Who knows if the long newsy e-mail was written specifically to you, or was cut-and-pasted from an e-mail originally written to someone else? And while you can attach jpgs or links, they can’t compare with the friendly warmth of a story snipped from the newspaper or a flier from an event saved and tucked inside.
Is there a way to bring back letter-writing? It seems nearly impossible. The feel of receiving a letter has changed, I think — it now seems almost twee. We are no longer quite sure what it means, to get a letter. Why did they write? Why didn’t they just e-mail? Do we have to respond by letter, or would an e-mail reply be OK? And so, sometimes, we don’t respond at all. Letters now confuse us.
After I found that box of letters, I resolved to write a letter every week, which I quickly modified to a letter every month after the first week passed without my writing anything. I didn’t meet that monthly quota, either — in five months I wrote just two letters, both to a nephew in Seattle who likes typewriters and vinyl. And then I gave up.
If writing letters seems daunting and weird to me — I, who once wanted a year’s supply of stamps — then there’s not much hope. If I don’t write letters, who will?
Do you write letters? Do you keep them? Do you keep e-mails? What will historians peruse, if there are no longer journals and letters? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. (And yes, I see the irony in this request.)
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.