In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Pens and Pencils.”
Nothing fills me with greater joy and anticipation that finding a letter in my mailbox, the kind of letter addressed by hand in ink, bearing the return address of someone I know. These days I see fewer and fewer of such missives and I wonder what will happen to the art of writing with intimacy. What will happen to the tete-a-tete created solely for the eyes and heart of another person?
My daughters are now grown, one lives in California, the other in New York, and they communicate mainly by text, e-mail, and cell phone. Yet no message from them gives me as much pleasure as a birthday or Father’s Day card with a handwritten note, often silly, telling me how much they love me, and how happy they are I am a part of their lives. Although I wouldn’t doubt their love if they typed the messages, yet the expression would lack the intimacy, the personal touch of a hand holding a pen, a hand on an arm that is moving carefully to express what is beating in the heart.
As our family’s historian, I work my craft by reading other people’s mail. The oldest letter in our family collection dates from 1847. All are written in ink of various shades, some dark, some faded, laid on paper by different hands. Some of the family wrote with harsh, forward-leaning slants; others wrote with short rounded loops, and still others wrote stems on their letters that rose high and dove low. I have spent many evenings with these letters until I know each writer just by looking at their cursive.
Reading my parents’ letters written in New Jersey just before World War II, I know them anew from their penmanship, the length of the letters, and how quickly they answered them. Mail traveled faster in those days with twice-daily city deliveries. As young adults in love, they wrote constantly, feeling anguished when a letter wasn’t answered within a day.
My mother wrote personal, idiosyncratic letters that was repartee on paper. There isn’t much reportage of the ‘news’ as much as it was a conversation. Sometimes she laced her billets-doux with French phrases. A week after my mother and father met for the first time, she wrote a friendly note describing her ‘new cream gray 1940 Plymouth sedan’ and urged him to ‘come up soon and see it, if not me. I think we could have fun. Forget about the fact that I’m two years older than you are,’ she continued, ‘and you don’t bore me, so there!’ A year later, shortly before their engagement, she wrote what became a prophetic letter to my father while visiting in Minnesota: ‘Being out here is certainly wonderful and it’s really pretty in June. I’ve been thinking I’d like to move out here someday. Maybe I’ll buy a farm and adopt a couple of kids and just move in.’ Seven years later, we moved to a Minnesota farm.
Dad’s family, on the other hand, wrote letters reporting family ‘news’ the inverted paragraph style that read like the copy my grandfather edited as a newsman. These ‘family letters’, typed in quadruplicate with carbon paper, contain only ‘the news fit to print’ for a dispersed family. Even when grandfather wrote a personal letter, he typed it (his handwriting was illegible), much drained of any emotional content.
Among the oldest letters in our family are those written by Samuel Searl, my great-great-great grandfather, an itinerant Methodist minister and a farmer. Largely self-educated, he wrote well-turned phrases in a firm, flowing hand in dark blue ink. In his words I sometimes think I hear him in the pulpit; at other times I’m deeply moved by the intimacy of his letters to Herman, my great-grandfather, who was then a rebellious youth. He began by saying he wanted to devote ‘a few hours of leisure to another chat with you’, and asked Herman ‘what do you mean to do or mean to be, a man or a mouse, a knave or a fool, what heights does your imagination climb to?’ Writing to Herman’s mother, he commented on the boy’s photo, remarking – prophetically as it turned out – that his ‘countenance carries the mark of bold and daring speculations and enterprises that build high castles without climbing the hill of science’.
On my desk I keep a small, note written by my father during the last months of his life. His once strong, and distinctive cursive had shrunk to feebler characters bearing only a faint resemblance to the hand I have known for decades. He closed his short note with: ‘Like the color of this paper, I’m beginning to fade, too.’ His approaching death wasn’t news to any of us. We had talked about his prognosis many times and knew what he wanted. We all knew his death was a matter of a month or two. But the hand-written note, the scratchy lines written in an unsteady hand, spoke volumes and revealed my father’s spirits in ways that words alone couldn’t if written on a keyboard that would have all but wiped away his personality in his last month.
E-mail is a blessing, my Twitter account is interesting, I use Facebook to post pictures, but I feel no genuine emotions emanating from an emoji or thumbs up, or text shortcuts like LOL or OMG. None of these convey the heart of the person who sent them. They are too impersonal and the emotions behind them must be inferred. My point is: When we move away from the pen as the means of personal communication, we place an impersonal veil between us and the person we are reaching out to.
Letters are particularly human creations, and personal, hand-written letters are infused with a tender human quality. It is the tenderness of the heart flowing through the body to the arm, the hand, and finally to the pen as it moves across the paper. Putting pen to paper is to put our hearts on display. Each stroke of the pen reveals the writer; I reveal my personality, state of mind, and the sentiments in my heart that go beyond words. I know my correspondents by the kind of pen, the size of the nib or ballpoint, the type of paper, its color, and texture, and the style of their cursive. Pen and paper and ink are choices the writer makes, and they add detail and texture to how we know each other through letters. These physical characteristics of our correspondence are manifestations of ourselves. They are the human touch.