“In an age like ours, which is not given to letter-writing, we forget what an important part it used to play in people’s lives.” – Anatole Broyard
Probably since the beginning of literacy, people have been writing letters to one another. Before the advent of the Morse Code, which eventually led to the telephone and later the internet, the only way to communicate along great distances was through the low tech method of sitting down with pen and paper, or pencil and papyrus. According to the ancient historian, Hellanicus, the first handwritten letter was recorded in 500 B.C. by the mother of Xerxes and daughter of Cyrus, the Persian Queen Atossa.
The delivery methods were often determined by the importance of the message. The Roman Emperor Trajan posted, at regular intervals, soldiers to carry important documents by chariot across the Empire. While the important affairs of government where carried by the military, it’s possible, if not probable, that private letters were carried and delivered by civilian travelers. Later, letter carrying became standardized and were carried by horseman, by coach, and by sea and air.
Some have said that with email, texting, and instant messaging the art of hand letter writing is a dying art. There may be some truth to that, since the majority of us communicate in this fashion today. Aside from greeting cards, most of the mail that fills our boxes are bills, late notices, and advertisements.
Except, at least, at my house.
Seven times, each year, we can hope to find a handwritten birthday letter for each of us in the household, plus one handwritten letter to commend our wedding anniversary. The author of these letters is my wife’s 97 year old grandfather. What started out, for me, to be quaint and old-fashioned changed to a different kind of appreciation for the man and for the art.
It’s not that he’s not up to date with our modern technology, he knows his way around the internet, and he can email. The last time I saw him, this past summer, he was reading from an eReader, and he has a Facebook page. There’s just something special about a handwritten letter. Even if it’s just a greeting card. For me, it’s about the time invested in the whole process. From writing the letter, to placing it in the mailbox. Each step along the process is a conscious step. Not at all like the email experience where you type, proofread (maybe) and then send the letter into cyberspace.
With his many grown children, and many more grown grandchildren, I’m almost positive that each one receives the same letter each year. I hope they all cherish this quaint, old-fashion letter exchange. I have promised myself to sit down, very soon, and return a handwritten letter to him.