When did you last receive a personal letter? Not an email. Not a text. Not a voice mail. And especially not a plea for your money or your vote. But a letter—in which someone sat down, thoughtfully considered what they wanted to say, got out a pen and paper, and wrote to you in longhand? It’s a grand feeling, getting a letter like that. Just seeing it in your mailbox makes your heart glad, and you can’t wait to see what they said.
I grew up in the world of letter writing. The 1950s were simpler and less complicated. The only phone that rang was on the hallway table, and it had neither an extension nor an answering machine. Since we lived in the British West Indies, we had no television: just a radio for local stations and a short-wave radio if we wanted news from the States. We could hear the birds sing through the always-open windows and across the street was the park where we played and on whose sidewalks we roller skated. People sat on their wide verandas in the evenings, catching up on the day’s events and discussing the mail that day. On a normal day my parents would receive letters from the Missionary Board (our employers in the States) and maybe a magazine. On good days, we received personal mail. On extra special days, I got a letter from my sister in Minnesota, who had left Trinidad to attend high school when I was seven. I examined each air mail envelope with its red and blue rectangles around the edge. The paper was usually light blue and in the upper right-hand corner were stamps: beautiful stamps, hand cancelled, and whispering of exotic places and distant lands. We now and then received letters from missionary friends in Africa, Egypt, or Europe. Letters took about two weeks to reach America, and interminably long to arrive from anywhere else. But they came, like friends dropping in for a visit.
Mail was our lifeline. We could call long-distance, of course, but only in dire emergencies. But in those days before cell phones and computers, mail was the only way to communicate with family and friends.
When I was five or six, one of my favorite books was, The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane, by Ian Munn. The little mailman was a chipmunk who delivered letters to his animal neighbors. Some neighbors received lots of letters and some only a few. One neighbor never got any letters. The little mailman organized a letter writing campaign which cheered up the lonely neighbor immeasurably and brought everyone together. Strange, the things you remember from one’s childhood. Come to think of it, this little book is probably one of the reasons I write lots of letters and cards today. I love to hear from someone months, maybe years, later, telling me how my letter came at just the right moment or that my card was just what they needed at the time.
Mail is very important to me now because it is so personal. A personal letter still is one of the best ways to get someone’s attention. Mass mailers know this. That’s why they cleverly disguise their mailings to look like personal letters. One charity onto whose mailing list I was somehow unfortunately added even hires minimum wagers to hand write the address. They use real stamps, colored envelopes that look like a Hallmark card, and home return addresses to cajole you into opening it. And then—wham! The disappointing realization smacks you in the face that you’ve been suckered again. Ours is an impersonal world where things are made to seem personal when they’re really just an algorithm in a computer created to use your first name, as though the national offices of a political party care about anything more than getting your money. They don’t know you. It’s just business. It’s a cold world where one of life’s dearest joys is shanghaied by commercialization.
A personal letter means that somebody is thinking about you and wants you to know. Personal letters are rare, for one thing. And they’re from a live person who has taken out some paper and an envelope, checked on your address, sat down and wrote your name to tell you things that nobody else will know except you. There is no accidental copying it to a third party. There are no emojis decorating every other thought, as though words were so difficult to create that our society has to communicate with pictures. There is no ugly swearing or obscenity. Just simple words created for you. Above all, it is personal. The handwriting may be untidy, but it is unique to the sender. Perhaps the message is the same time after time, but, even so, it is for you. How are you doing? How’s your garden coming? Aunt Hilda just had hip replacement surgery. Our dog had pups. Fifteen! When can you come and see me? I’m going to visit you next Christmas. How was your trip to Budapest? (or Omaha)
My mother had incredibly precise penmanship until it got shaky in her 90s. She always used a fine point pen and could get more words on a sheet of paper than anyone else. (After all, postage was expensive.) My Dad’s handwriting was always a challenge to interpret, somewhat like his typing, that was filled with strikeouts. When, as a teenager, I lived in Seattle and they in Jamaica, their letters were a lifeline to me. The main body of the letter was typed, but before it concluded, each of them wrote a paragraph or two in their distinctive handwriting which I knew so well. My mother, especially, was amazingly observant and always included descriptions of her travels, the neighborhood children, or some recent event she’d been to, and even what people were wearing. I still remember one letter she wrote while flying across the USA. She drew little diagrams of the irrigation circles below that she’d never seen before.
All my life I got personal letters. In college I met a captivating blonde with a knockout smile who stole my heart. For two years we wrote letters each summer while separated, she in California and I traveling. She still has those letters I wrote from Seattle, Barbados, and from across the USA. She, too, was a faithful letter writer. She joked about how their mailman commented every day, “Another letter from that young man in Seattle!” and told me a lot about her job and family. Any time I see her handwriting I see in my mind’s eye her lovely hands so soft to hold. The two are inseparable.
I don’t get many letters these days. I’m sad to say the writing letters is a dying art form. This lovely and altogether delightful way to communicate is vanishing in a culture that’s too fast and too electronic to be bothered with anything that takes time. Sending a text or email is fast and convenient, after all. I will admit that Facebook and the social media are fun and useful. But they’re still kind of impersonal, like Siri, that calls you by your first name. We respond with a thumbs up or maybe even a little comment like “Way to go!” or “Congratulations.” But likely others are reading it and adding their two cents worth; rather like having a conversation in the checkout line.
Me? I still love writing and receiving letters. Every week I drop notes and cards to people around the country. Even if they don’t respond, I know that receiving a personal note will brighten their day.
It just occurs to me that God has written letters, also: to us—to me. The Bible is filled with all kinds of literature. I believe that it’s no coincidence that the easiest to understand and also the most memorable are personally written: journal entries such as the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, and the letters in the New Testament. The true value of letters now stands revealed: one can ready them again and again.