The Gift of a Letter

By English Drews

I never knew my grandmother on my mother’s side. I have seen a few photos but never a letter or a diary, until recently. On the back of two postcards, an unlikely place for a letter, she wrote a sweet note to my mother, giving her an update and sending her “a little change to keep you from going broke and lots of love.” At that moment, I felt I knew her, those words gave me a connection to her.

That is the gift of a few handwritten words. It can connect us, make us feel special and tell us about a time we may not have known. My mother used to send me letters often, with newspaper clippings about someone or something she knew I would be interested in, always with a little note attached. I saved
many of them and like her handwritten recipes, spending time with them is like spending time with her – not a physical presence but absolutely a spiritual one.

I have become reconnected with the art of letter writing – an accidental archivist, volunteering a few hours a week in a windowless room, reading letters, transcribing diaries, cataloging collections and for a moment remembering people who have faded in time. I often shed a tear or a had laugh at what I was processing, always taking a moment to be thankful for the thoughts that were shared, never before realizing how important letters are to our past and present connection with each other.

Through letters, I have witnessed the loss of a son at war and the support of a community, the innocence of a soldier off to battle – stating proudly how he feels to be the first to fight, the impact of an earthquake that crumbled parts of our city, the expression of love a young man has for his family and the joy from a college freshman that comes in anticipation of a Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday.

Words delivered in a letter somehow carry more meaning and emotion than words delivered in a tweet, a text or an email. Handwritten, personalized letters are more than the collective words themselves.
I had forgotten what it was like to receive a handwritten letter. The excitement of something other than a bill in the mail, to feel the weight of the paper, the texture of the envelope, the anticipation of the content –until recently when I made a new friend.

I was working on a research project, and in a true Southern form was connected to someone who knew someone. “You need to meet … she has written a few books, similar to your subject matter, you will really enjoy her, and she might give you some ideas for your research.” Sounded great. The thing was, she didn’t use email and we weren’t sure of her phone number. So, for the first time in a very long time, I sat down and wrote a letter. I asked her if I could meet her, shared with her some of my research, and hoped I wasn’t being too presumptuous to think she would even want to talk to me. But she did, and a gift ensued.

Through her letters, she provided me with encouragement and shared stories of her journey that made me feel more comfortable with mine. She has sent me books she has written which have inspired me, since she became an author when she was about my age. And she sent me one of her favorite books, which is now one of mine. And it all started with the gesture of a handwritten letter – a letter to a stranger that turned out to be so much more. For the gift of a letter is more than just a letter.

This renewed discovery inspired me to go on another journey – the letters of my parents when they were courting. I had not been able to read them yet, 10 years since my mother has passed and four since my father. But I finally asked my sister if I could take them and read them. And what a discovery and gift it has been. I see my parents at their young age of 19 and 24, their struggles, goals and innocence shine
through the pages. What a gift they are giving me to get to know them in a different way.

So, this holiday season, write a letter: Write to a friend, to someone you love, someone you just met, someone you care about. Share your thoughts, fears, wishes and let them know how much you appreciate them. Write a letter to your children. Leave them that love to revisit, witness and experience over and over. It is a gift we should give to each other – the gift of a letter.

To read some of the historical letters referenced in this post, go to the digital Citadel
archives.