“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 Letters have been replaced by phone calls, emails, and text messages.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.