pen - letter

Writing letters is almost gone now. It is just so quick and cheap to email or text or just to call as needed. But the cost of all the ease and efficiency of quick interactions is a loss of observations and feelings that were frequently captured in letters.  Letters also provide a real glimpse of history. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses everything from immorality to jealousy to the precious instruction that all gifts are worthless without love.  Pretty deep stuff to put into a letter without backup files and spell check. Heck, I don’t think Paul even had carbon paper. The letters between Napoleon to Josephine remain the standard for letters of love and reassurance conveyed via post. I keep meaning to read the letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Reportedly they contain a glimpse, not only of great minds, but of history. Maybe you are like me, and remember the last letter you received.

My mama, Doty, was a letter writer. Her generation wrote letters and taught their children to do the same. I enjoyed writing letters to neighborhood kids who moved away but at some point our correspondence would dwindle and then stop.  I had a pen pal in England for a short time. I think I dropped her when I figured out that not only did she not personally know the Beatles but also she did not like their music. Mama had many correspondents but none lasted longer than Ruth. Mama and Ruth were neighbors in the late 1950’s.  When we moved away they wrote letters. I don’t know what mama wrote but I read enough of Ruth’s to understand the nature of the correspondence.  Their long, long letters consisted of a detailed listing of the shortcomings of the husbands and children, ailments, aches, pains, and the meals they had eaten.  “I know it was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth” was a frequent comment. When I would come to visit the letters were on the dining room table.  I sometimes read them and as the years went on they got progressively more negative and bitter.

After the great migration (which occurred when mama was moved to assisted living and her mail was forwarded to me) I got a frantic letter that Ruth had sent to mama. For once it was not filled with bitter complaints but instead with pleading. Please, please let me know that you are ok. They were both now in their 80’s and probably did not have many friends left. I imagined her worry about her old friend and I quickly wrote back to her, explaining that mama was unable to write anymore. It seemed like the next day when I got a reply from her. She wanted all the details and also to tell me how awful her kids had turned out. I waited a few weeks and actually convinced myself that I could control the conversation. I sent a chipper, newsy letter with updates on mama and the family.  The next day (or maybe it was 2 days) here comes a bitter, angry reply. Pages full of old woman scratchy handwriting and closing with the admonition to “burn this letter.”  I imagine those two closed all their letters with that warning. Always fearful that one of those thoughtless, selfish children would run across one of those letters and perhaps drive across 2 states to deliver it to the greedy, worthless subject.

Again I waited a few weeks to reply, sending sympathy for her trials and news of mama. And again, almost instantly came the many paged reply.  We continued in this fashion for over a year, me waiting as long as I could to reply and her seemingly instant reply. I cussed and raged. Why did I write back in the first place?  Now I was stuck in this difficult correspondence, trapped by another bitter old woman. Then one day I get a letter in different handwriting.  The letter opened with an introduction. It was from Ruth’s daughter, a childhood friend. She was writing for her mother and hated to tell me but her mother did not wish to write to me anymore. Ruth found the pressure of replying to be too stressful and she wished to cease our correspondence. And so I was dumped by my last pen pal.

I would like to close by lamenting the loss of letters, pen pals, and old friends but that would be a damn lie.

Image: feature photo by Ryan Blanding via flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.
Nancy Melton

Nancy Melton

Nancy Melton has recently added "writer" to her biography. She works in the health insurance industry which has somehow become public enemy number one these days. She is proudest of her role as a wife, mother and grandmother (although writer comes dang close) and wishes she could still claim to be someone's daughter.

  1. My mother wrote letters. Almost without exception, the recipients wished she didn’t. There were a few in her bank lock box, marked not to be opened until after her death. After her death, I consigned them to the trash without bothering to open them. They were not missed.

  2. Thanks Hannah. I admire your decision not to read those letters. I’m not sure I could have done it even knowing that sometimes it’s better to leave things unsaid and unread. I appreciate you reading this.

  3. Lovely story, Nancy. You are especially apt at capturing small events and tracinc their larger significance. Enjoyed the posting. Very best.

    1. Thanks David. I appreciate your reading and your comments. I cannot imagine 4 letters in one day. 40 is beyond crazy. But thanks, I plan to read more about Elizabeth Bishop.

  4. I just read the following account of the poet Elizabeth Bishop. After reading your pen pal story, I thought you might be interested in this account from The Writer’s Almanac: “She was an extremely slow writer and published only 101 poems in her lifetime. She worked on her poem “The Moose” for more than 25 years, keeping it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines again and again until she got it right. But she was an obsessive letter writer. She once wrote 40 letters in a single day. She said, “I sometimes wish that I had nothing, or little more, to do but write letters to the people who are not here.” A collection of her letters, One Art: The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, was published in 1994.”

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