My daughter and I just spent an hour with my daughter going through some of my old report cards, yearbooks, and drawings from when I was a kid. She was especially curious about what my old report cards looked like in elementary school. We also looked through the box of letters, etc. I have from my mom. When I went to college and when I lived overseas, my mom and I wrote to each other a lot. I have all her letters. I just reread what is perhaps the kindest, most loving letter I will ever receive. My daughter made me read it aloud because she’s still learning to read cursive (but please note she is the only kid I know who has made a point of teaching herself cursive). I made it through the whole thing and only got a little misty near the end. I said, “Isn’t that the nicest letter you could ever get?” With a slight sense of wonder, she replied, “Yeah.”
My mom wrote the letter to me 23 years ago. It’s written in the lovely, even hand that was honed by years of Catholic school in Youngstown, Ohio. She wrote it on thin, crinkly airmail paper, the light blue kind that I’m not even sure if they sell anymore. Reading it is not only an emotional experience, it’s a visual and tactile one. It’s an experience you cannot get from texts or emails. All day, I’ve been mulling over Sherry Turkle’s wonderful essay in the New York Times on how texting and constant phone use is killing meaningful conversation, empathy, and appreciation for solitude. It’s killing letter writing and all that goes with it, too.
If my mother had emailed this note to me, reading it now wouldn’t have the same effect. It would be printed in toner, not blue ballpoint ink in her distinctive, unique handwriting. The paper I printed it on wouldn’t have been the paper she held in her hands as she chose and wrote her words. Nor would it have been the same paper that traveled from Cleveland, Ohio, to Alkmaar, Netherlands, arriving two days after my first birthday overseas. In short, it would be a printout of a lovely letter, but the immediacy of emotion, the connection to someone who is now gone, wouldn’t be there.
I write notes to my daughter, and when she grows up and moves away, I will write her letters. Real letters. Hell, instead of just putting in a note in her lunchbox, I’m going to start putting in a damn missive. Listen–we only have so much time here together. The people we love will someday leave us. We will someday leave them. Leave the people you love with something more than the printout of an email or a text conversation that will accidentally be deleted the next time they upgrade their phone. Leave behind something tangible, something meaningful, not just pixels.