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Long letters chronicle our lives in ways emails can’t

Jan Hearne • Jan 16, 2012 at 9:09 AM

Letter writing is a lost art, some say, but I say we’ve not lost it as much as laid it aside. There’s no art to putting words on paper when you’re writing to a friend, and there is no better chronicle than a box of saved correspondence stretching over decades.

My friend Beth and I spent the first morning of the new year in Meigs County looking through her mother’s letters to her best friend.

The two, friends from childhood, corresponded faithfully throughout their lives until Beth’s mother’s death a few years ago.

These are not the hastily scribbled notes my friends and I share, but four-page, single-spaced, typed letters, some on onion skin paper, that detailed so much of their daily lives in a time when long-distance phone calls were reserved for emergencies.

Beth remembers being awakened many mornings by the sound of her mom typing away at her manual typewriter, writing another letter to her friend. It wasn’t until New Year’s Day that she got to read what her mother had been working on.

We read about her boat trip to Japan, where she joined Beth’s father after World War II. The small-town Mississippi girl was shocked to see men answering the call of nature, well, whenever and wherever it called.

There were anecdotes about Beth, who once announced to her parents, “I’m growing. I know I am. I can feel it,” and descriptions of the farmhouse they bought when Beth was a child.

If Beth didn’t already know it, her mom’s letters made clear how much her parents doted on their only child.

Though they were boxed and put away, it’s hard to know whether Beth’s mom pulled them out from time to time and revisited herself as a young married woman, a new mother, an empty nester.

I was once a prolific letter writer, channeling all of my need to write into letters to my mother, my sisters and my friends. When my mother died, I found a few letters of mine she had saved, and revisiting that silly girl in the midst of such sorrow was a comfort.

Think of the great writers and historical figures whose lives were chronicled in letters, and whose letters gave us insight into their work and the workings of their minds. Through her letters, I have come to know Flannery O’Connor as so much more than the eccentric short story writer; John Cheever’s correspondence amazed me.

It’s silly to think we’ll revive the practice of writing letters. This week I read that some 10- and 12-year-olds don’t know how to address an envelope; some don’t even know where to place the stamp.

It’s not just the younger generation that has laid letter writing aside. Even with a computer at hand, I haven’t written a single letter since New Year’s Day. It’s easier to post on Facebook or email a quick thought.

We’re all about easy these days, not lasting.

Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at jhearne@johnsoncitypress.com.

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