Monday, August 3, 2015

Oh, Mr. Postman!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Youngest is off to Camp Bishopswood for two weeks, which means 1) things are a lot quieter 2) we can have salads for dinner without listening to demands for burgers and 3) writing letters.

Bishopswood is an old-fashioned camp; no computers, no cellphones, no tablets or ereaders or mp3 players. If there's some sort of emergency, parents can call the camp office, but otherwise, if you want to communicate with your kid, you write letters. (The campers all write letters, too...they don't get lunch on 
Tuesday unless they've turned in at least one envelope to their counselors!) 

It's become a pleasant ritual for me; I sit at the dining room table early in the morning with my tea and a notecard and a good pen, and jot down amusing things from the previous day. Stick a stamp on it, pop it in the mailbox and you're done. Every summer, I think, "I like this. It's such a civilized, pleasant way to communicate." And after every summer I don't write out a single letter until I (maybe) do Christmas cards.

It got me thinking about writing and receiving letters in the past. I was thirty-four when we got our first personal computer; so my life at college and grad school and living abroad was marked by a trail of letters, mostly from my mother (Thanks, Mom!) Younger than that, I remember the thrill of getting my first set of my-very-own writing paper and envelopes. I had pen pals - remember pen pals? Before you could contact anyone on the planet via Twitter? When my Dad was courting my mom from four-hours-drive away, he would send her letters, and inside would always be a clipping or a silly joke for me. 

I had angry, passionate, funny letters from boyfriends, catch-up missives from girlfriends at distant colleges (yes, kids, there was intercollegiate life before Facebook,) sweet cards from my Alabama grandmother with crabbed printing and prayers tucked inside. There was onionskin air mail paper, and soft rag paper from Crane, and after I was married, a lovely flat card with Mr and Mrs Ross Hugo-Vidal along the top. It all sounds a bit Victorian almost thirty years on, but letter writing gave us tangible memories and made the walk to the mailbox something to anticipate, rather than a chore.

How about you, Reds? Did you love to correspond, or were you  reluctant writer? Any memorable letters, to or from? And in the best of ll possible worlds, which would you prefer? Email? Or pen and paper?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, Julia. A high point of every day is when I go to the mailbox. There's always this...hope. That there might be a real letter. There rarely is. But still, the yearning for real mail is so tangible! I treasure them, I love them, and I have a tiny box of them, and interestingly some are to other people from me, since I used to type them on multi-carboned script paper, and I kept them, some from the beginning of my TV career. And some from when I  was planning my first wedding in 1971. They are fascinating! (And I think I sound smarter than I do now.)

Now. Do I fulfill anyone else's mail-hope by writing letters?  Hardly ever. I have such regrets about that, and I know it's one of my losses. But every time I consider writing a letter, and I often do, I say to myself: Okay, I'm doing this.  I have STATIONERY. I have a nice pen. I have stamps. But--where's the address? Oh, no, the address. We used to have address books, remember? And that made it easier. But my lists are on the computer, and somehow that's difficult, and then I need to do the laundry ,and then, why not just write an email, if it's going to take this long? And another good intention turns to nothing.

I love holiday cards, I really treasure them. And this year, I am DOING them..  Please, everyone, email me  your addresses. Seriously. 

LUCY BURDETTE: I love letters too, and have many, many crammed into boxes in my closet. And I do try to send birthday cards and get well cards and postcards to John's mom and my uncle. But they are rarely bona-fide letters. And some Christmas cards too, but those have a paragraph printed on them, along with photos, so they probably don't count. My father was an amazing and dedicated letter writer, and his brother is like that too. It's so much easier to send email, but who is going to look in the sent file when we're gone to remember the past? I'm afraid it's mostly a lost art, but I say that with regrets!

RHYS BOWEN: I have some old fashioned friends who still send handwritten thank you notes. I love getting them and feel guilty that I don't send them more. I really regret the passing of true correspondence. I've exchanged emails with some pretty famous people, and I'm sure the rest of the Reds have too. And when I delete I often think that my witty retorts will never be included in the volume of Letters of Rhys Bowen. Like Hank, I love getting real letters, but it doesn't happen too often now. I do still send out Christmas cards--over 100 to friends all over the world, and love receiving them in return.  My mother and grandmother exchanged letters every Sunday. I kept all the letters from two of my boyfriends and wish I hadn't discarded them now. I remember one of those boys was particularly witty.. 

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  Oh, I love letters! There's always a faint hope when I sort through the bills and junk that fill my mailbox every day. And last week there was actually a letter! With a UK postmark, which was even better! Scrawled on the back was the name of a friend in England I hadn't heard from in a while. My first thought was that she'd lost my email address... But, no, inside was a short handwritten note, along with a clipping mentioning me from the Times. So thoughtful of her to mail it when she could have just scanned and emailed it!

My first thought was that I would mail her a thank you note rather than thanking her by email. Have I done it? No.... I have cards and lovely personalized stationary and a half a dozen very nice fountain pens. I have pretty postage stamps, and I even have super cool personalized return address stamp! But I don't write. How hard is it to sit down, like Julia, and write at least a quick note?

When I lived in Scotland and England my mom and I wrote all the time. No email, no Facebook, and long distance phone calls were very expensive. My mom typed the letters on onionskin paper, and she always included clippings from my favorite cartoon strips. These letters were priceless. I think I might still have them packed away in a box. I hope so. And I resolve--once again--to be better at sending real mail.

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? Are you writing letters? Reading them? Pressing them with flowers between the pages of thick books?


  1. Letters are such a treasure. I write them [although perhaps not as much as I ought to write] and really enjoy getting them. I appreciate really nice stationery and have been known to obsess over which design I should use to send a note to someone. We [the children and I] would write letters every day when John was away with the Navy [and I recently discovered that he saved every one of them.]
    Email may be easier [and texts are even faster] but there's something infinitely more satisfying about having a letter from a friend or that special someone to hold in your hand.

  2. I'm also a big fan of letters, and my adult sons and I write from time to time. My father used to regularly type out six-page single-spaced letters to me, and I have saved many of them.

    Kudos to that camp for keeping it lo-tech. I approve!

  3. I recently found a letter my dad wrote home to his mom before being shipped out to Australia in WWII. Holding that in my hands--reading those words written in his handwriting, like listening to his voice. It was an amazing gift to hear him speak from a distance of 70 years, to hear his 'voice' from before I was born. No one writes letters to me and I don't write any, myself, any longer. It's all email, text, phone calls. No one will be holding one of my texts in their hands 70 years from now, for sure. But I still have that second of hope, before I open the mailbox....

  4. I love letter and postcards. Such a rarity these days.

    Anyone a fan of the Griffin and Sabine books by Nick Bantock? Something about reading those "private" correspondences was such a treat.

  5. camp letters! The only thing better than writing them to the camper is receiving one, even if it's the admission ticket to the dining hall postcard:

    "Camp is great. How are the dogs? I miss them."

    The girl scouts in Georgia set up a camper email system, with parental emails printed out and distributed during turtle time in the bunks. That made the news from home more timely. The campers could only write letters. No electronics.

    Friends with lengthy illnesses cherished the cards I would send once a week, with a close up flower photo glued to the front. Beautiful flowers, that didn't need to be watered, and flowers that would never die. Flower cards gave them pleasure and hope.

  6. How lovely, Julia, to get letters from your kids. I wonder if my 10-year old grandson was also required to write a letter a day to his parents when he was at his first sleepaway camp last month?

    His letters were, predictably, hilarious. First, the writing, which is a mashup of cursive and printing (they no longer teach cursive, and he taught himself). Then, the tone, which ranged from mildly hysterical when reporting on the "huge, huge, HUGE spider!!!!!!" in his bunk, to the matter-of-fact way he imparted the information that they had cooked their own dinner (all meat, all the time, baby). Then he embellished the letters with silly, sometimes incomprehensible, drawings to augment the text (and, I suspect, to make the letter look longer).

    How will future generations know anything about their ancestors' travels, courtships, infidelities, or other woes, without letters? Our communications today are so ephemeral, bytes and bits that blow away like so much dandelion fluff.

  7. I love letters. I love pens and I love fancy writing paper. As a child I had to write letters to my uncle, who was a HS principal at a boys' school in Dorchester, MA. When I was in HS he'd send the letters back with corrections. Ummm, yes I know that helped with my grammar but after a while I stopped writing as often. When he was sent to Rome I wrote again and either my writing improved or he didn't have time to correct them.

    From age 10 I had a pen pal in Australia. We wrote constantly for years. Shared everything. We continued writing through college/university and up through my marriage. She got an exchange teaching job in Ontario and I was living on Cape Cod. She came for a weekend and my entire vision of the person I had "known" through her writings was blown up big time. She drank constantly and got upset when I let a "little thing like my marriage" get in the way of her having a good time with my husband. (He wanted to part of that, of course.) It killed me to think of all those years we had corresponded. Needless to say, she left the next day. She called me a few weeks later but I wasn't home and I never called her back.

    But, back to writing. Along with bookstores, I could spend hours in any store that sold pens and stationery. My house is filled with pens - fountain pens are my favorite. And I always write thank you notes.

    And what's this about not teaching cursive writing in schols??

  8. I am a letter writer, with an address book. Primarily now I write to my almost 90 year old mother -- it seems to work so much better than the phone. She can re-read the letters, and read them to her husband. She still can't keep straight where I am, but she really enjoys them.

    I also write letters to other older relatives, fewer each year. Again, it is a more comfortable mode for those of a different generation.

    I am reading "Against Wind and Tide," Anne Morrow Lindbergh's letters and diaries, and have been thinking about how much I enjoy reading collections of letters, and how few there will be in the future.

    Last week I read through a collection of notes I had sent to my mother-in-law when my children were little (they were returned to me after she died). It was pure bliss to be back in those days of dolls and tea parties.

    I am very fortunate that I do not have much time pressure on me, so I can write a letter.

  9. I've just remembered that my Aunt had a pen pal in France. They corresponded for 50 years but never met. When my aunt finally decided to go over to meet Juliette she got the news that Juliette had died. Good basis for a book, right?

  10. I loved getting letters, but I'm bad at sending them. In fact, I'm bad at keeping in touch with people. It's why I love modern communication. I've kept in at least partial touch with a lot more people than I would have otherwise.

    I do remember one grandma wrote me nearly every week in college. I loved getting those letters. There wasn't much in them, but it was still so very special.

  11. Denise ANn, you are so right that it is generations..and you are so lovely to do that!

    Kristopher--postcards! Love them.Still, it's all about having the address, you know?

    Julia, those posters are fabulous!

  12. As a kid I had pen pals all over the world--girls in England, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, and Germany and a boy in India. My friend in Hong Kong wrote to me about her arranged marriage when she was still a young teenager. When the much older brother of the girl in Japan visited the U.S., he stayed with us and my father took him to a Rotary Club meeting. I have no idea what happened to all those letters, although I still have a few of the postcards sent as enclosures. I really wished I still had the address when I made my first visit to England, but all I could remember was that her first name was Carole and she lived in Bristol. On the other hand, nowadays I do keep printouts of emails. Not quite as personal, I grant you, but the sentiments can be just as sincere.


  13. The Boy went to Scout camp earlier this summer and it was the same deal. No electronics. No visits, no phone calls. They'd call you if there was a problem. But letters and care packages were encouraged, so mid-week I sent him a box of stuff. But nothing in return.

    I used to get loads of letters from mom and my grandmothers in college (even my dad a couple times), even though I was only an hour away. I still have them. Somewhere.

    The Girl likes to write thank-yous; her birthday was last Friday and she has a couple to do. But my family is so antsy, when she receives a gift she also has to make a phone call or send a text, just to make sure they know it's been received (otherwise I'm bombarded with messages - "did the card/box/package arrive yet?").

  14. Oh, Rhys, that's so sad! But if it was a story, Juliette might have left a letter for your aunt, and then...

    I've read many collections of letters while doing research for some of my books with an historical story thread, as I'm sure Susan and Rhys have done as well. (And thanks, Denise Ann, for the reminder about Wind and Tide. Oh, I would love to read those again.)I've said before--I think we all have--what a great loss the decline of letter writing and diary keeping is to the history of daily life as well as our knowledge of what has made--and continues to make--human beings human. Rupert Brooke sometimes wrote dozens of letters in a day. Long letters! Can you imagine?

  15. I have a dear writing friend who sends card constantly. It gives going to the mailbox such hope because there really might be a note there. She inspired me to buy stationary for the first time in years (since I was in college at the dawn of the email age). I've sent one card to her.

    But handwritten thank yous are on my to-do list for this month. So keep an eye out. ;)

  16. I do love getting "real" mail, but don't do it as often as I used to. Most recent were letters to great-nieces at camp, one of whom actually wrote back. College was filled with letters! Dad said, "You can say plenty with a five-cent stamp," (yeah, those were the days), and we did! I still have some of his and Mom's letters to me from those days.
    I was just thinking of my pen pal . . . Sandra from Tenterfield, N.S.W., Australia. No idea how to find her, but it was fun. She and her family were caring for an orphaned kangaroo when we first started writing.
    Meanwhile, the stacks of "free" cards and stationery from various charities continues to grow. Maybe a school could use some.

  17. FChurch, what a treasure to be able to "hear" your father's voice in a letter!

    Kristopher, not only do I know Griffin and Sabine, I have a series of writing cards based on the illustrations, and those are what I'm sending to Youngest at camp this summer. I thought they'd be colorful and weird enough - the girls often tack up their cards and pictures on the wall above their bunks.

    The common thread of concern for all of us is "What legacy will be left for the future?" Letters have been a primary form of memoir, keepsake, historical and literary research for almost 400 years. The lack of personal written communications - I doubt many of us print out emails as Kathy Lynn wisely does - will create a strange silence for future generations.

  18. Once we moved away from home phoning was too expensive so always wrote letters, especially when we lived overseas. My mom would send the kids craft page to my daughter every week. Before the granddaughter came to live with us I wrote to her weekly. She still has some of my letters. I still send birthday cards and some letters but not as much as I used to. 6-year old great-granddaughter recognizes my handwriting and says, "That's for me! It's from Gigi." And I treasure anything - letters, recipes, notes in books - in my mom's or grandmother's handwriting.

  19. Julia, when my husband lived in California for a year, 20 years ago, we kept in touch via email, since long distance calls were still so expensive. (We saw one another about every six weeks, either here or there.) We did each print out the emails, or at least the sweet and funny ones. It was a weird time for us, but rereading the emails reminds me how funny he can be, and makes me glad I did not follow him out there. The conditions he lived in were horrible, and made ten times worse by the most rainfall California had seen in decades.

    Too bad they can't have some of that now, eh?

  20. How fun, Julia. Yes, those Griffin and Sabine illustrations are weird and intriguing. Perfect for generating conversation at camp.

  21. When we moved to this house 15 years ago, I sorted out all the old letters and cards I'd kept for 20+ years. Kept all my late father's letters -- beautiful Palmer method penmanship on lined yellow paper. Wrapped up and gave my two best friends from college the letters and cards they had sent me over the years -- quite a stack -- both were delighted, as the letters were a record of the changes in their own lives, a journal of sorts. And, THEY get to decide whether to keep them or not!

    In my office hangs a string clothesline, and I've clipped it to the handwritten notes I've gotten from readers and booksellers. It's quite full, and I love seeing it and feeling the connections that books give us.

  22. I have long lamented the passing art of letter writing for personal reasons and historical. But, have I done anything to quell its disappearance. No. My granddaughters, especially the almost six-year-old, love receiving mail, and I'm not even good about that, except for holidays. I am writing out two cards for them today to try to start rectifying that neglect.

    I treasure the notes and letters from my past. My mother would write and tell me about the weather where they lived, some tidbits about what was going on, and often include a recipe. Those letters are like gold to me now. I've saved those and letters from friends when I was in college, and get them out every so often to read. I had one boyfriend who was an amazing writer, and whose missives include lyrical descriptions and a couple of lovely poems about me. Oh, and I have my camp letters from the one time I went to camp, letters I dearly needed because I was homesick. My mother even made my brother write to me. I have camp letters from my daughter, too, but my son was a no-go for the summer camping scene. When my daughter went to Europe in college, it was, of course, the age of emails, but I did print out and save those emails. I also printed out some emails from my husband when he was in Afghanistan, but it just isn't the same as those letters soldiers would send home to their loved ones.

    I love books that include old correspondence that's found or been kept as an important part of the story. I am aware of the Griffin and Sabine books, but I need to now give those a look. I enjoy, and younger granddaughter does, too, reading the Postman books with her, where the story characters have letters or notes delivered and stuffed down in the inserts.

    Julia, I do so worry about that legacy for the future. With a dearth of letters and correspondence amongst historical figures and even we commoners, how is the future world to know what our live and thoughts really were.

  23. I love Leslie's idea of the office clothesline! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  24. I am not very good at writing letters these days but I do have received-letters saved, especially the ones from my in-laws' post-retirement treks around the country. When we received them the kids would plot their trip on a big USA map we had. My daughter (now 38) is wonderful and writes all kinds of notes and letters. For a brief time her plan for wedding favors was stamps and notecards for guests and the suggestion that they write someone they miss.

  25. I love to receive them. I actually mailed a hand-written thank you note just this morning.

  26. Tammy in Hampstead MDAugust 3, 2015 at 8:31 PM

    I am among the dying breed that still writes letters and cards AND I still iron. I'm 56. I still expect my young adult children to send their grandparents, aunts, etc., a handwritten thank-you for gifts received. I regularly exchange letters with my mentally challenged cousin so she will get personal mail at her group home. I enjoy the company of those who like to read and I find that some of them still enjoy writing too. I hope I always will. Computers have their place but nothing beats a handwritten note.

  27. In today's mail I received a handwritten note from a friend. It made my day because I seldom receive letters and, sadly, seldom send them. In pre-instant communication days, things were so different. Somewhere up in the attic is a box that contains the correspondence between my mother-in-law and father-in-law from World War II. He was in the SeaBees stationed in the Pacific. They wrote to each other every day that he was deployed. Imagine how much it must have meant to them to receive those letters. I don't think that even Skype could match the experience.