Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Lost Art of Writing Letters: One Step On My Writer's Journey

Writing letters may one day be a lost art.  I have a few letters saved, tucked away within Bibles and my cedar chest, from loved ones.  One is the last letter my Granny wrote to our family before her death, a simple description of her daily life, nothing special except there were no more after it.  I have a letter or two from Grandma, her fancy script handwriting so pretty it was difficult for my generation to read and we, unlike many of today’s young people, could read cursive most of the time.  I have other letters, from aunts and uncles and cousins, even a few friends. 

 I stay in touch with a wide circle of cousins, family and friends but it’s not often I write a letter.  I send messages via email or through Facebook or carry on conversations with comments on my post or theirs.  I probably write more professional letters, cover letters for job applications or manuscript submissions, than any other and even those are rare.

 Some of the first letters that I wrote were to my Uncle, Raymond Neely.  He was one of my favorite uncles, a man who would sit down and play tea party with me, his large hands handling my tiny cups with graceful ease, as he treated the occasion with serious importance as if he had tea with a queen.  Sometimes in my earliest years he would toss me high into the air and catch me.  I never doubted that he would.

 On our occasional family picnics, events with enough attendance to count as a family reunion, he took me into the adjacent woods and taught me many things.  He first showed me the tiny print of a raccoon paw and how to follow animal tracks through the forest.  One Christmas, I received a pair of walkie-talkies and Uncle Raymond was the only adult who enjoyed using them with me.
 And then he became ill with tuberculosis.  In a swift chain of events, Uncle Raymond became a patient at the Missouri State Chest Hospital in Mount Vernon, Missouri.  Although later my family moved to Southwest Missouri, it was a very long way from my hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri and I missed him.

 Although still in grade school, third grade if I remember correctly, I wrote him two letters.  It’s strange but after all these years I remember the pens I used very well.  They were stick ink pens and they were striped in white and the color of ink each contained.  One was red, the other black.  I sat down at my mother’s desk and penned the letters but what I wrote is long forgotten.

 I imagine I wrote about my everyday life, asked how he was doing, and when he might come home.  I wrote in cursive and I remember how proud I was that I could write like a grown-up, ironic today when cursive is fast becoming a lost art. 

 What I remember most about the letters is how much they meant to my uncle.  He carried the first letter, then the second with him in the hospital and showed them to anyone he could.  He told them how his little niece wrote them and probably shared some of my words with them.
 He recovered and came home but I had learned that words could have power.  They could encourage and deliver emotions, some easier written than said.

 Those letters penned on lined stationery were the first of letters I would write.  I also wrote to my great-aunt who lived in Ohio, my late grandfather’s sister for many years.  Although I only met her once while on a trip, I never forgot her or my great-grandmother who lived with Aunt Mae.  She expressed love in her letters for years.  After my family relocated to Neosho, I wrote letters to Granny and to my cousin, Bill Sontheimer.  Sometimes we made what we called “tape letters” by recording them onto cassette tapes complete with our favorite songs of the moment and more. Late in his life, I also struck up a correspondence with another uncle, Darrell Neely who encouraged me to keep writing.

 I don’t know if writing letters helped me become a writer but I like to think perhaps it did.  I wrote letters before I wrote my first poems or committed my first story to paper so those words were a small but vital part of one writer’s beginnings.

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