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August 24, 2004

A letter on letters

Cheers for Kailani Koenig-Muenster’s celebration of handwritten letters on the Sunday NEXT page. Several years ago I undertook a book of family history, and as part of it, I went through a box of letters from the 1940s. Most of the letter-writers I had met in the 1960s, when I was a kid. But I hadn’t known them at the time they wrote these letters.

Several things were notable about the letters. One was voice. Some people put their voice in what they write. My mother did. I could read a letter from 1945 and hear her talking. Yet her older sister wrote formal letters.

Dating the letters was a puzzle, and was fun to figure out. It might say “June 19” but not the year, but then it might refer to some news event, like the beginning of the Korean War, and I could look that up and see it was 1950. Some letters were dated just “Sunday.” Which Sunday? Sometimes I could tell by the postmark on the envelope, if there was an envelope. When people respond to each other in letters, you can tell which letter came first. If one correspondent dates her letters another doesn’t, the one's will help date the other's. Sometimes they would write about Christmas, or the apple harvest, and I would know what month it was.

This was before the Internet. At the time, I thought, “Letter writing has died. Everybody uses the telephone now, and whatever they say is gone without a trace.” Then came e-mail. It is not handwritten, but at least it is written. But it takes an effort to save it. E-mail is so common that most people don’t think about saving it, and I know much of it is not worth saving. But some of it might be, and it takes just a few clicks of a mouse button to save it.

The other thought about letters is that you need someone to write to who is not where you are. I had a great correspondence with my aunt when she lived in California. Now she lives a few blocks away, and I don't write to her anymore.

The most important thing with letters is: Write them! Second, keep a copy! Especially if you write about yourself, your life, your thoughts and feelings: Keep a copy. Give your grandchildren something to paw through. Or yourself. You'd be surprised how interesting you are, especially to you.

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Posted by Bruce Ramsey at August 24, 2004 11:01 AM



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