Saturday, October 22, 2011

I gave a letter to the postman … but not recently

The personal letter – you know, the paper kind – has been in ill health for a long time. It caught a nagging cough with the advent of affordable long distance. It really started wheezing when everybody got email accounts. Now it’s nearly flat-lined because of social media.

I can’t remember the last time I found a real letter among the bills, catalogs, magazines and junk mail. Apparently I’m not alone. The Post Office says the average household receives personal mail – a greeting card with a note, for example – every two months.

Thank goodness for Hallmark. I treasure the cards I receive from family and friends and tuck many of those with personal messages away in a shoebox that is now overflowing. I especially cherish the cards from my grandkids. The birthday, Father’s Day and thank you cards they send tell a unique story that begins with a few scribbles, moves to little drawings and proudly printed names, and continues to fully formed thoughts and complex sentences that reveal the remarkable little people they have become.

I write quick notes to clients, jot a few lines in greeting cards and occasionally type, print and mail a short letter to my octogenarian father, who is not exactly cruising down the information superhighway. (He’s a retired postal employee, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.) The rest of my written correspondence is electronic.

My mother made me a scrapbook containing dozens of letters she had written her mother when I was an infant and toddler. My grandmother saved all of my mom’s weekly letters, perhaps in a shoebox. They are sweet, mundane and provide both an otherwise unavailable snapshot of my childhood and priceless insight into the person who was my 20-year-old mother.

When my son was in the Navy, I made sure to write him at least weekly, because I remember what it was like not to hear the mail clerk call my name. Though, I must confess that the opposite was usually true in my case. I was a newlywed in basic training and received several letters most days, much to the envy of the other well-shorn guys in my flight.

Email is fast, efficient and always available. Social media lets you correspond simultaneously with hundreds, thousands or even millions of people (if you’re Lady Gaga). Even though IT professionals and convicted inside traders will attest that email has a long electronic tail that is pretty hard to erase, I don’t know anyone who saves even their most memorable emails in a real (or virtual) shoebox. Too bad.

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