When Once We Wrote Letters

Apparently one of the gifts I received when I graduated high school was this letter holder with stationary!  It never got even a day of use.  I found it buried in the closet in my childhood bedroom along with numerous other boxes of neglected stationary.  So much stationary!  Why had I needed so much?SONY DSC

Although I was on email for most of high school, it didn’t become the primary way I communicated until I went to college.  I scarcely noticed the transition, because it seemed simply a part of adapting to college, just another way in which everything about my daily life had been overturned in an instant.  Without a moment’s hesitation, I started exchanging emails with my parents and sister back home, my high school friends now dispersed around the country, and my new friends at school.  Other than the historic buildings, everything about college seemed modern and efficient, and so email took its place in my life as the modern and efficient tool college provided for us students to connect to the people in our lives.  The letter holder went forgotten, and soon, letter-writing, too.

Here I am at my childhood home, beginning the impossible task of sorting through the contents of my bedroom, and almost everything under my bed turns out to be letters.  Bags of letters I sent and received from summer camp, where mail was a life-line.  These I remember.  Pen pal correspondence dating back to fifth grade, which puzzles me because of its sheer quantity.  So many letters!  If I had received this many letters, I must have written that many.  Are they out there somewhere?  Who was that girl who wrote them?  I have every email I have ever sent and received and can relive any correspondence from the past couple decades on a whim (ouch), but what had I whined about to P. that earned a page-long pep talk in return, and what boy did I mention to G. that she gave me such odd relationship advice?  Should I chase down this vital evidence of my earlier years the way I might hound a relative to scan her photo album or trek to view the contents of an archival collection?

Did any of you recognize the revolution of email for what it was as it happened?  A whole way of existing in the world just slipped away on our watch.  The family papers I’ve inherited include very few letters, sadly, but on the rare occasions when I find one, I can scarcely even imagine the social world in which they existed, though I caught the tail end of it.  For most of human existence letters were so dear that often they were treated as the public property of the whole family, passed around or read out loud, and even the town, by way of inclusion in the local paper.  Brief letters had their value, too: once a few words scribbled on a postcard were the only way to let someone know you were still out there.  It was a world in which catching up with one’s correspondence was a fixture of the day — not a luxury, but a vital necessity.  It’s easy to romanticize this lost period and wonder if relationships mattered more, then, too.

‘Til I peeked under the bed I thought of letters as the communication mechanism of previous generations, but I have cubic feet of proof that my lifetime spanned the before and after.  Our world is changing faster and faster, and with little choice but to keep up, I can’t even remember my own before.  I worry our ability to connect with our ancestors is diminishing even more quickly as their before becomes ever more distant, ever more strange.

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