Monday, January 17, 2011

Letters, Part I: Taking Advantage of Our Everyday Familiarity with the Written Word

“Dear Brenna—Wondering what Gran’pop & I could have for dinner the other eve, came up with a real easy, old recipe & tho’t I’d send along to you so you could surprise the family sometime & fix it for them. It is a “keeper.” Thus the enclosed [5-Can Casserole*]. Let me hear how they all rave about it.” –Beginning of a letter from Barbara McCormick “Gigi” to me, dated Aug. 14, 1992

Shortly after my last post, I received word that my grandmother, whose health had been failing, had passed away. I found out by email, and remember sitting at my desk, suddenly and deeply sad, despite knowing that it was forthcoming. As I sat there, I remember thinking that I would miss Gigi (as we called her) and then suddenly, very distinctly, her death became tangible in the knowledge that our correspondence had come to an end.

My grandmother’s letters arrived every six weeks or so, and were satisfyingly plain and non-romantic in the way of letter writing; they were often on full sheets of stationery folded into business-sized envelopes. As she was once a secretary, they were often typed, but sometimes held her legible cursive that slanted swiftly across the page. They were filled with unrequested advice, questions, and short descriptions of her activities in the communities in which she lived, first in New Jersey and then New Mexico. They also often included clippings of articles or recipes that had made her think of me. More than a few of them began with brisk lamentations on not having heard from either me, or sometimes my siblings, within a satisfying amount of time. Somehow, even knowing the contents may contain a rebuke for a late reply, I was always glad to see one sticking through the mail slot.

Letter writing has always been important to me, and luckily to some of my friends, so I know both the satisfaction of sending a letter as well as the joy of spotting a hand-addressed envelope among the day’s mail. Yet, it wasn’t until Gigi’s passing that I truly grasped, on a personal level, the impact of her letters. “Letters are memorable. They make a lasting impression.” It is something that I had preached many times as a manager at Crane & Co., Paper Makers—but, now it was something I understood. More than just a way of staying connected with me and my siblings, Gigi’s letters were a way of remaining a part of our lives from the other side of the country. And suddenly, with the realization that there were no more letters forthcoming, her absence in my life was deeply felt, and her saved letters, with their everyday communication, became more precious to me.

Often, I feel that letter writing is romanticized. While I appreciate this (as I think the notion of letters is romantic), I think that it is important to respect that the role and function of letters has changed in our everyday modern lives. More importantly though, I feel that the impact of receiving a letter has not. The rare treat of a real letter, now makes it something unique and memorable to be savored. Letters connect you to people, allowing you to be present in their lives without disruption, without the disturbance of the phone ringing or being another email showing up among many. They allow the reader to investigate them on their own time and allow the author to tell the story, uninterrupted, in their own way.

Originally, letters served as the only means of communication across distances. Technology has taken over many of the functions of letters--sharing news, making social plans, setting up appointments, serving as references, or staying in touch--making them more instantaneous and/or automatic through email, phone, social media or text. There is an instant gratification and functionality to technology that has made our communication better and more efficient (thank goodness.) Yet it has given us something else unexpected that I think we should take better advantage of: an everyday familiarity with the written word.

The act of writing a letter can seem intimidating. When you consider it though, we write letters everyday—in emails, in text messages—the means of communication just needs to be altered (along with a little patience for the postal system). If you are looking for your words to have impact, to connect with your reader in a way deeper than email, or just to subtly strengthen a relationship, I encourage you to put aside the keyboard and pick up a pen and some paper.

I would like to say that this is something that I have always known, but now I feel that I can say that it is truly something my grandmother taught me.

A Little Extra
• Inspired to send a letter that will have immediate impact but don’t know where to start? Consider sending a letter of support or appreciation to a member of the armed forces:, or
• Have someone to say Thank You to? Forgo the email, and send them a handwritten thank you instead. It is an action that always guarantees goodwill and more things to say thank you for in the future.
• *Here is the recipe for 5-Can Casserole that was in my grandmother’s letter. (She suggests in the letter serving it with French bread and sliced tomatoes and fruit for dessert):
(Oven 350)
Mix altogether and heat for 30 mins uncovered:
1 small can evaporated milk
1 can chicken noodle soup
1 can mushroom soup
1 can tuna
1 can Chinese noodles

Note on back of card: “Campbell’s chicken noodle & mushroom soups are like 10.25oz each. Tuna can is around 6.25-6.5 oz. Chinese noodles are in Chinese food section & I don’t know oz. but size of can is slightly larger than soups."