I recently handed over to my daughter four bulky old folders full of letters. These folders have over the years filled up as members of our family have moved to different parts of the globe for longer or shorter periods, and have sent back to other family members news of their lives. Often in my times of moving house or moving to another continent, I have pondered ditching the files, but in the end they would be packed up and moved with us.
I am not even sure exactly which family members are the authors of the letters or where they originated, but there is a special file for my father’s letters, because he didn’t write often, but when he did they were very detailed and often very funny. During the second World War he was stationed mainly in North Africa and the Middle East and his letters to my mother were very regular and full of intriguing facts about the countries he moved through.
Before handing the files to my daughter, I looked idly through one of the files and found a neatly handwritten letter from my late husband to his mother, written when he must have been not yet a teenager. His mother was on a visit to her native New Zealand leaving her husband in charge of the four sons, the youngest of whom was still quite a baby. The letter (to dear Mummy) was mainly a horrendous description of the four older males bathing the baby. Amazingly this was a letter I never remember seeing – my husband would be seventy nine now if he was still living.
People used to save letters. I think of all the letters of famous people through the ages whose letters are still on record. Now this form of communication is almost dead and sending letters through the mail is thought of as snailmail.
Somehow one slows down a bit, becomes a bit more thoughtful ( I think) when, pen in hand, one puts one’s words onto paper. We’re simply in a different mode when sending emails. And it is also so easy just to text someone.
I know all of it is on record somewhere in the ether, but will we ever be able to retrieve it and reread it with love and amazement sixty years on. Are we not losing something very important, as we let go of the art of letter writing? Are we not losing a magical bit of history?
--Val Matthews lives in Charlottesville