The Art of Letter Writing
Grandparents are blessed with the opportunity of contributing to their grandchildren’s lives in myriad ways, yet sometimes they struggle to be a vital part of their family’s world, especially if they live far away. Email can provide a vital link, however, even in this high tech day and age, there’s still nothing like good old-fashioned handwritten sentiment to touch hearts and bridge geographical and generational distance, working miracles that last a lifetime.
Growing up I lived within a few blocks of my maternal grandmother. After school I would rush to her home. Waiting with open arms she was always ready to give me a hug and ask about my day. She kept her cookie jar stocked with my favorites: spicy gingerbread with creamy white icing, pink cream wafers, and peanut-shaped cookies filled with peanut butter.
After helping myself to a couple of cookies and a glassful of milk, I would sit next to Grandma at her kitchen table as we discussed our lives. From experiences I had with other children—some not pleasant—to problems with my parents, and activities I looked forward to, I told Grandma about my heartaches and joys and she responded with compassion and love. In return, I listened and learned about what life was like when she
was a child. Days spent with no TV, no phone, and no electricity were fascinating to me, as were her tales of raising her own pet calf, Star, and the love she felt when her mother made her favorite jam in a special crock.
My paternal grandmother lived over two-hundred miles away yet her determination to share herself with me was no less intense. At least once every month I received a handwritten card or letter from her. Through her correspondence I not only learned about the frigid Idaho winters she and my grandfather endured in a little valley at the edge of the Snake River, but also about her hopes and dreams. Stories of adventures she shared with my grandfather, their travels, and her efforts to create quilts depicting the history of the town in which they lived, came alive for me and I saw her as a fascinating, heroic figure who I was proud to call my grandmother.
As I grew older the letters never ceased. Even through my sometimes turbulent teenage years, when I became wracked with doubt and lack of self-esteem, I knew—no matter what—that I was still valued and cherished. Assuring me of her confidence in my integrity and her belief in my abilities—and always signed, “Love, Gram”—her never preaching words of love, wisdom, and encouragement were my most cherished possessions.
When I married and had children the letters came with less frequency. Grandma’s once flawless handwriting became jagged as her gnarled hands shook with age over the effort of writing. Knowing how difficult the process had become for her I loved her more dearly with each letter I received. They became a priceless line of communication, from her heart to my mine, and also to the hearts of my children. Stories of she and Grandfather’s triumphs over age and the Idaho elements, as they continued on in faith endeavoring to retain their independence, their farm, and their herd of horses, were a true testament to my family of the strength of the human spirit and of great blessings that should never be taken for granted.
In 1922, philosopher and etiquette authority Emily Post included a section on the art of letter writing in her popular book on manners:
“. . . THE ART of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a post-card. It is the letter from the friend in this city to the friend in that, or from the traveling relative to the relative at home, that is gradually dwindling . . . The difference though, between letter-writers of the past and of the present, is that in other days they all tried to write, and to express themselves the very best they knew how – today people don’t care a bit whether they write well or ill.”
Some eighty years later, Post would surely be appalled to find email and text messaging to be the norm and that handwritten letters are a forgotten art, the crisp feel and texture of paper and envelopes replaced by a cold computer screen. Sadly, though technological advances provide us with the means to correspond more easily and more frequently, too often they encourage a level of communication that rarely enhances interpersonal relationships.
With the hope of discovering a good “handwritten” face, software companies have conducted typographical experimentation with numerous script typefaces. While one day they may be successful in developing a font that is close to imitating the intimate feeling one receives from getting a letter in the mail—versus an email in their inbox—there is no application that involves the same care, love, effort, and time that go into a handwritten letter. The computer screen will never match the warmth and human quality of the touch of pencil or pen to paper.
Though my grandmother has passed on I continue to find strength and direction in the words contained in the cards and letters she wrote years ago. Now, as a grandmother myself to two granddaughters, I look forward to keeping my cookie jar well stocked and to sharing special grandmother/granddaughter conversations.
I also look forward to passing on the art of letter writing. In the future, my granddaughters and I will surely use email to communicate. However, I am already giving priority to creating time to sit at my desk, pen in hand, to contemplate and record the things I want to share with my granddaughters when they get older. I want to teach them what I have learned and relate all that I feel I have yet to learn, hopes and dreams as well as things both sacred and miraculous in my life. In doing so I pray they will be proud to come to know who I really am and what I stand for. I believe that one day they will recognize my efforts as an act of love and know how much I value them through the letters I will sign, “Love, Gram.”