“The Most Immediate Breath of Life”

“We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.”
                                                Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Little did Goethe know, when he wrote those words at the end of the Eighteenth Century, that letters would be destroyed, not by throwing them away, but by technology.  Letters have been replaced by phone calls, emails, and text messages.  As Liz Carpenter said, “What a lot we lost when we stopped writing letters.  You can’t reread a phone call.”

Every once in awhile, I read some of the family letters which have been passed down to me from my parents.  They are an intimate look into the lives of people who no longer walk this earth.  Yet those people come alive for me in their words.  Take this letter my father’s father wrote to my mother’s parents during World War II.  My parents had eloped in Ohio, and shortly after, my father left for the South Pacific.  My mother’s parents lived in Kentucky; my father’s in Manhattan.  They had not met yet, and my father’s parents had not even met my mother, Dorothy, and were eagerly looking forward to a visit from her.  What a lot is revealed in these words:

I have many other letters, including the love letters my father and mother sent back and forth to each other during the war, and letters from as far back as 1926 when my great-grandfather wrote letters to his little girl, my grandmother, when she was a young bride with two small babies, one of whom was my mother.  What treasures!

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to start writing letters, something that I’ve yet to get to, but I’m rethinking that goal.  What is the point of writing a letter, paying for postage, sticking it in the mail, and then waiting for several days or nearly a week for it to arrive at its destination when you can send an email instantly?  Would anyone really appreciate the effort and keep the letters as I’ve kept those old ones?  Probably not.  Life is not the same.  People don’t have as much patience.  The immediacy of an email or a phone call or a text and a quick response is what people are looking for.  But reading those old letters over and over again make me believe, like Liz Carpenter, that we’ve lost a lot.

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About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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31 Responses to “The Most Immediate Breath of Life”

  1. I used to write long letters by hand, and then for a time I wrote long letters on the computer that I printed out and mailed. Now I correspond almost entirely by e-mail, but I’ve taken what I think is a middle course: while most e-mails these days are short and many are written in textspeak, I still write coherent paragraphs using real grammar and real capitalization and punctuation. Digital documents can be preserved on hard drives and CDs and DVDs, but the question is whether they will be. I gather that many historians are afraid that much will be lost. And something else to ponder: what will become of all the things we write and show in our blogs after we’re dead?

    Steve Schwartzman
    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com

    • Coming East says:

      Thanks, Steve, for your thoughtful comment. You are so right about emails being saved. People won’t do it. There is just too many of them. As for these blog posts, I started printing them and putting them in a notebook, but I’m about 150 behind, so I doubt I’ll ever catch up. I probably worry too much about this issue anyway.

  2. Pingback: Handwritten « Older Eyes

  3. oldereyes says:

    The only letter have of my parents’ is one my Mom wrote to her mother when my Dad was in the Army and they were in Caspar Wyoming. She was pregnant with me at the time and was telling her Mom how she was doing. They called me “Little Stinky” at the time. I have several boxes of letters between Muri and I in college… they often seem a bit silly but they are fun to read.

    You may (or not) know that I’ve been building a Father’s Legacy Blog of writings and pictures for my kids, It includes writings about my life and theirs, thoughts I’d like to leave them and pictures. Of course, a good question is how long will WordPress blogs last? There is no doubt that writing longhand is different, though. A friend of mine claims that we have a BS filter in our elbow that keeps us honest when we write longhand. I do a lot of writing with fountain pens, especially when I’m trying to work something through, so I’m inclined to believe him.

    • Coming East says:

      Love the BS filter thought, Bud! I started printing out my blog posts in the beginning and putting them in a notebook, but now I’m about 150 posts behind. I still think its a good idea because, as you said, you never know how long these blog posts will last. What a wonderful idea about the legacy post. Is it a separate WordPress post that you keep private?

  4. Emily says:

    What a treasure! My mother has a box of love letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during World War II. We also have a stapled-together memoir written my great-great grandfather before he died, which really is a family treasure, and I’m grateful for those connections. I don’t think we’ve lost as much as it seems though. One day, my children will have the emails their father and I exchanged during his deployments. They’ll have all my blog posts, which form a record of their childhood and of my life as a young mother. Not to mention, with social networking the way it is — all those tweets and status updates! — I think historians will have an interesting glimpse into the everyday lives of people in this generation.

    I don’t know how it will compare to opening an old box and actually *holding* those fragile slips of yellowed paper, but at least we’re passing down records!

    Great post!

    • Coming East says:

      Great comment, Emily! You young people will have a different kind of correspondence to hold onto, though I wonder how many people save email and tweets. One thing those things can’t show us, though, is a person’s individual handwriting. I can identify who wrote a recipe or sent a letter just by looking at the handwriting.

  5. Leah says:

    What a great post! I agree we’re missing something without letters being so prevalent. I still love getting letters in the mail and keep so many of them I’ve received. They’re so special. Love your header by the way!

  6. Big Al says:

    I agree with you on this, Susan. However, what is lost to me is the ability to write long hand. I now struggle to write because I use word processors all the time. It’s still a letter which can be saved but it does seem less personal.

    The upside is that I used to be a poor letter writer volume-wise, but now I leave a far more tangible history of my life by writing and saving so many documents. I would never have done this without word processors. I’ve already written a short history of interesting and important things I have done in my life for my kids (grown) and grand kids to read some day. They don’t know it exists – it is tucked away with my will.

    • Coming East says:

      What a treasure that is, Big Al. My dad wrote a hand bound book about his life before he married Mom and their lives together with scanned pictures. He wrote it as a tribute to her after she died. They’re both gone now, and I love reread that book again and again. Letters aren’t the only way to keep memories alive.

  7. pattisj says:

    I totally agree much has been lost. I love to get letters, and enjoy writing them. I have a few my daughter wrote after moving away. I enjoy reading them again, and I’ve been thinking of writing a letter to her and her family (it’s hard to keep up with six grandchildren, five under the age of 12). The two older girls and I keep journals that we exchange every visit. That’s been fun. But I want to write of our lives so the little ones will get to know us better.

    • Coming East says:

      I love the journal idea, Patti. What kinds of things do you write in your journals to each other?

      • pattisj says:

        I happened to have the journal when we had our earthquake this past year, so I got to make that entry. I try to incorporate what I’m doing/working on, current events, a scripture that meant something to me. The girls usually tell me what they’ve been up to. The 11-yr-old likes to send the journal with us when we travel to see family. She writes something to her cousins (or whomever) and they write a response in it. Sometimes the journal stays somewhere awhile, until another visit and then it’s returned. It’s fun. I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be better to have two journals, and swap them monthly when we get together; that way, we could both be writing in them, as they felt the earthquake, too. It would have been nice to have the family’s reactions written down.

      • Coming East says:

        The two-journal option sounds like a good idea. I only get to see my granddaughters about three times a year because they live in Michigan, so I don’t know if the journal idea would work. I think I just need to get busy writing letters.

  8. Great post!! Letters truly are a lost art. One of my treasured possessions is a letter my father wrote to me (and Pop was NOT a letter writer). He wrote it after driving me 1,000 miles from Philadelphia to southern Illinois for college. He wrote about letting go of his baby… priceless!!!
    A friend, Margaret Edds, a journalist from Richmond, VA lost her mother at the age of 3. She was given a collection of letters her mother had written to her sister and her family over many years. She was literally able to get to know the mother she never knew through those letters. She wrote a memoir based on that journey- Finding Sara. Great book!

    • Coming East says:

      What a great story, Carol! I found a letter my parents had saved that I had written them the first month I was married. I’m going to give it to my husband to read next week on our 40th anniversary.

  9. So interesting that you are thinking about letters right now. A writer I know has started her own ‘Month of Letters’ for February. She is even accepting letters written to one of the characters in her book and answering them with a quill of all things! So fear not – you are not the only one lamenting the loss of intimacy a handwritten letter carries. And there are actually some people doing something about it. Here’s the link if you are interested – http://www.maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/month-of-letters/

  10. How wonderful! And it appears that you are not the only writer in the family – the way the letter in the photo is written is lovely. Such penmanship! (Also gone the way of the dodo in modern times.) I just bought some note cards today – think I’ll write a few words to my grandfather. Real mail is so fulfilling.

    • Coming East says:

      What a lovely thing to say about my grandfather’s writing, SC. I remember him very well, even though I was only seven when he died. It’s nice to be able to read his letters and see his handwriting. It makes him so real.

  11. E.C. says:

    I keep letters. They’re like little pieces of the hearts of the people who wrote them and I don’t want to let them go. I used to write letter all the time, but now-a-days unless I’m sending something specific like a card or gift, I utilize Ma-Bell and email. ;)
    I think it’s wonderful that your family letters are being kept and treasured. :)

  12. Amy says:

    When people just began to experience emails, I decided to save thank-you cards, Christmas cards, and letters. I thought emails might replace the real letters and cards someday. Yesterday, I received the very first thank-you card from our 3-year old grandson by mail! I shall begin to write real letters to him. Great post! Thank you so much, Susan!

  13. Dor says:

    I always hang on to letters from the family and they are like the glue that ties generations together after years and years go by. Your post is so terrific Susan, because it is a reminder of all the things we lose when we rely on new, and supposedly better ways to do things. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Mama's Empty Nest says:

    I so agree! I wrote a post last year I think about finding letters my husband and I had written to each other when he was stationed abroad in the military and I was expecting our first child. I saved them. I don’t know if anyone other than our children might want to read them someday, but that is my hope. I would love to have a collection of letters from my parents or grandparents like you have. What a treasure!! We’ve certainly lost a lot when other modes of communication replaced letters. I think back to when I was first married and lived half-way across the country from my family. Even then, we didn’t write many letters because we just picked up the telephone and dialed long distance when we wanted to convey something. And now we email or text message….just isn’t the same.

    • Coming East says:

      No, it isn’t the same, Mama, though think of how exciting it must have been when the telephone came along and you could actually hear your friend or loved one’s voice across the miles? But once the conversation was over, you had nothing tangible to hold onto. Technology is wonderful and terrible at the same time,

  15. Shary Hover says:

    I always intend to write letters. When I actually do, my friends tell me they loved getting them. And I know how I feel when I find a real letter (instead of junk mail or a bill) in the mail box. I have two letters I’ve been meaning to write to dear friends that I rarely see. Thanks for the reminder to do it.

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