Sunday, September 18, 2005

Handwritten notes in a digital world

We're to the part where we're writing thank-you notes to everyone who sent flowers, offered service or brought food to my sister's family because of her husband's death. Having to look up the snail mailaddresses has reminded me that it has been at least seven or eight years since I wrote a note by hand to anyone, except on packages atChristmas or someone's birthday. However, in the past few years, I've ordered birthday presents online because the shipping is usually free; so my cards have been imprinted by the same computer that creates theshipping label. Paychecks are direct-deposit. Electronic bill payingand email is so popular, we hardly ever need to purchase a stamp. But I think for me that this is going to change.

Each of my grandchildren needs to feel the excitement of receiving snail mail addressed to him or her personally. Remember how important you felt when you received a letter as a child? Everyone else got mail, and finally it was your turn. There is something wonderfully tactile about holding the envelope and tracing your fingers around the stamp affixed slightly crooked in the upper right corner.

There is always thequestion "I wonder who it's from?" for in those days we wrote the return address on the back of the envelope. Instead of just turning over the envelope, we'd try to make out the town and state from the imprint of the postal cancellation to determine where the letter wasmailed. Geesh, those were once hand stamped by the postmaster. Remember?

Then there were the all-important discussions involving '...wonder what has happened?" That part always makes me smile, because people did tend to speculate for a minute or two and I don't know why. It is a simple matter just to open the envelope and read the letter to find out. But it seems a mini-discussion of the possible news is part of the ritual. This gives everyone around you the chance to theorize and practice deductive reasoning. It also gives them a chance to share what they know about the family news of late. "I wonder if Dad is doing better. I wonder if John got that new job. Maybe Mary has finished nursing school.-- Nope, I think that she still has another year to go." Isn't that a funny thing? Just open the letter and find out!

At this point the person with the power is the recipient. He and only he can bring this discussion to a close by actually opening the envelope.You can almost hear the drum rolls.

There are several methods for opening envelopes. Perhaps the easiest is the thumb or pointer finger approach where you get under a loose corner of the envelope flap, and pry it open to retrieve the contents. That method was long ago improved upon by the invention of a dull-bladed knife known as a "letter opener." They used to come it sets with inkwells and quill pen holders, something else my grandchildren have probably never seen.

Alternately there are those who take a more high-tech approach, by tapping the envelope on one of the short sides to hopefully shift the contents before using a small hand-held or electric letter opener designed to slice off an eighth of an inch of the opposite end. Then one would gently squeeze the envelope to open that end by holding the envelope between the thumb and fingers on the long sides. For some reason, a few folks also gently blow into that open end before using the other hand to pull the letter out. I know of no earthly reason for blowing into the envelope. Again, it must just be a ritual thing.

Some recipients of snail mail read silently, giggling in the appropriate spots and eventually looking up to say "that's wonderful" or "I am so glad." In polite company, this is actually unkind, because it only serves to heighten the suspense, since the gathered crowd has simply no idea what they are to be glad about.

There are the fainting readers, the swooning readers, the sobbers and the clutchers. That last group is particularly problematic when they've received bad news -- they clutch the letter to their heart and no amount of prying will release the letter (or the information) to those around.

Once we do get a peek at the letter, we most likely find it isn't just a matter of words on a page. You can tell a lot about the writer without being a professional handwriting expert. You know at a glance the ornate swirls are from Grandma Frances, who always makes her "Ts" and"Ps" that way. You can just see how Grandpa's hand has been shaking more lately as his letters wiggle across the page. Some folks write straight across the page without benefit of lined paper, while otherspen sentences that slant down as they get closer to the right edge.

And speaking of borders, there are those who sign their letters and then think of something else, so they turn the paper sideways and write up the margin, across the top and sometimes down the opposite side in teeny tiny letters. Some people sign their letters with hearts dotting each "I" or draw flowers or birds in the unused portion of the page below the signature. On thank-you notes, where there isn't much to say,the sender might chose to use inordinately large letters to fill up thepage. The texture and color of paper can vary depending on the preferences of the writer. There may be a hint of perfume added for sentimental reasons. Overseas letters used to come in very thin "airmail" paper that folded to become the envelope as well.

But somehow, eventually the news gets out. In fact within the week, nearly everyone in town might say "Heard you got a letter from Frank." Of course that was when we lived on farms or in small-towns and the postmaster knew everyone personally. Now we're a global community accustomed to split-second "instant messaging" and electronic mail. But is this really an improvement in communication? You can't clutch your computer monitor to your chest and sigh in anguish if need be. I am not too sure that we shouldn't return to handwritten notes for more thanspecial occasions.

All double negatives aside, I think the special people in our lives, like my precious grandchildren, deserve our hand-written attention and care. It really says something -- but they'll have to open the envelope to find out what.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt :)
6023 26th Street West PMB 352
Bradenton, FL 34207

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