In the late 1940s, when my dad traveled with his college football team to games around the country, he would send a one or two sentence message to my mom for one cent and a longer letter for just a few cents more. His letters were not gushing with heavy sentiment or blatant lust, but in their innocent simplicity, were still full of affection and longing, which I found enduring. Words like “swell’ marked the times they lived in, and nicknames like “Slim” and ‘Buddy,” are a sweet reminder that they were once young and hopeful, full of possibilities and dreams, before the days of diapers and bills that we all lived
The digital age has it’s perks, and I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to not only sort through my parent’s boxes of letters, trinkets, flowers smashed between pages from long forgotten bouquets, and personal relics, but to also be able to scan them digitally in an effort to preserve them long after even my generation is gone, is just remarkable. It’s interesting, though, how before text messaging and email, people took the time (because that was their only means) to write postcards and letters from weekend get-a-ways or excursions just to ‘drop a line’ or write a ‘goodnight’ or ‘miss you’ passage on hotel stationary and local postcards and post it quickly…without much effort. The effort, it seems, was in the ‘stopping’ to contemplate words that silently said, “I took the time…was focused on only you”…and literally sent a ‘penny’s’ worth of thoughts.
During my life with my parents, my father often mentioned a wish to see certain far-away places and reflected on the few travels he was able to experience with fond remembrance. But, the normal burdens of raising a large family on a teacher’s salary required he often work during his summers, and as the years ticked by, dreams of traveling were always prefaced with ‘someday.’
He got to Florida and California to see family and took a few jaunts to neighboring states, but my father never got very far into those ‘somedays’ before his life ended. We had our summer weeks at the ‘cabin’ in mid-Michigan, where dad, I’m sure, relived his boyhood memories, and perhaps on some level those rugged, lazy days satisfied some of my father’s desires to ‘get away’ or ‘go places.’ But, there were greater places that he dreamed of seeing, including ‘the Alamo,’ which is now just thirty minutes away from my home. Well-versed in American History and a lifetime of western movies, when my dad learned that I was moving to San Antonio, he was so excited about the prospects of seeing the Alamo and experiencing the vast mystique of Texas, that he immediately started planning a trip. Time and fate had another journey in store for him, so that trip was never to be.
during his team traveling: places he wanted to share with his family. Perhaps my father’s unfulfilled dreams are what fuel my desire to drive…anywhere…just to see a new landscape, to immerse myself in history, and learn how other people live.
It is certainly easier to travel now, even by car. With GPS systems that talk to you, cell phones that can save you in a desperate situation, or to just ‘check-in’ with those that are worried, have made the scary and dusty road of travelers a safer place, to some degree. No need for the hotel stationary or picture postcards either, when just a click of one’s phone can get you and a monument pictured all over the worldwide web and a quick ‘I am here’ message can cover more territory that a one cent stamp ever could. One can send an “I love you” or “Goodnight” without the effort to find a decent pen, and calm the hearts of mothers and lovers with ease and some level of immediate satisfaction, as well.
But with all things new, there is something lost and something gained. The gains of the digital age go without saying, but the losses…the anticipation of a letter from far off places, the unique scroll of a personal signature from the hand you love, even the ‘art’ of the stamp…are certainly ‘lost’ to our comfort with immediacy. Someday, not too far in the future, there will be no more boxes of letters, postcards tied-up in once-worn hair ribbons, or those precious markings of personal handwriting left to future generations to sort through, run their fingers across, and read. Who will ever know of the deep abiding love between two people, secret letters, and children’s words to Santa or from summer camp, or see specially selected cards with hearts and kisses penned inside, if all of our communications are just floating in a cloud? It may make no difference at all to the people who exchanged such words, but to those left behind; those before us will become more of a mystery than they already were.
Since the beginning of time, man has written on ‘something’ to leave his mark on the world or on the hearts of others. Letters and postcards are artifacts of another time and people. Their thoughts and affections are the ties that lovingly bind us to family and friends like the ribbons they are tied in. They are sacred, real, and evidence of who we are and where we come from. They are words on a real ‘wall’ to tell our stories that will last.
Once this digital age of people disappear, what will people know of us? Surely, just as dreams of traveling roads to new and interesting places will be lost to obligation and duty, now our very thoughts and reaching words will be lost, as well. Stationary, stamps, pens, even worse… eloquent and descriptive words… will be lost to time eventually. “I ‘heart’ U” will replace a poetic tongue, a deeper meaning, and the message of “I took the time…” will lose its value. Perhaps it already has.
From a small pile of letters that my mother saved, I have gotten a glimpse of a young man and his young love for my mother, and it’s painted a lovely portrait of a 1940s couple, just as their hats, gloves, and shoes do in photographs. It documents a time in history, a union that still cultivates family roots and belonging, and reminds us how to talk to each other…even as one is just running off to meet a train or a plane…or drifting off to sleep. A penny sent a lot more than just a quick message, and is was worth so much more than we will ever know and understand again.
Certainly our grandchildren won’t know, and if we are able to save what is left of the written word in diaries, personal letters, and photographic images, they will surely see these ancient artifacts as a marvel of meaningful intention from a more enchanting time when every stroke of the cursive hand and now unfamiliar words, meant people had ‘time’ to consider others, to find the right words of love and affection, and to send them across the miles through some magic world called ‘the mail’ where others ‘waited’ patiently to receive them. They may shake their heads in wonderment, but what a gift of history they will be able to experience hands-on and a personal connection to people who once were theirs.
Maybe a spark of romanticism will inspire them to do the same, and ‘writing letters’ on paper with a pen, in one’s own hand using original thought, will become a new trend again. Handwriting will return to the school curriculum where ‘writing specialists’ will be hired and revered on campuses across the land. Stationary will appear on store shelves again, and countless people will become employed by the US Postal Service. Best of all, the writing of beautiful ‘words’ through the art of communication…may become valuable again, and people may stop and ‘take the time’ to send a line or two just for the love of it, leaving evidence that they once loved, were ours, and were here.