It’s been four months since I wrote here about the lost art of letter-writing. I didn’t mean to wait so long to revisit this topic, but there’s been a lot going on. Winter ended. COVID arrived. The U.S. Postal Service faced bankruptcy. Quarantine began, and with it joblessness and furloughs and worry and doubt and pain. A black man named George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, and protesters filled the streets. Curfews were instated.
Through quarantine and curfew, we lost the privilege of hanging out with friends. We turned to Zoom as a way to see another friendly face. We got sick of Zoom.
Could there be a better time to revive letter-writing?
The truth is, after I posed that question — do you still write letters? — you sent me so many letters in response that I couldn’t keep up. I tried, for a while, to write back to everyone, sending off a few notes a day, but I was quickly overwhelmed. This is a good thing. I am extremely grateful to all of you who took time to write — hundreds and hundreds of you.
You sent messages by e-mail, by Facebook, and by U.S. mail — handwritten notes, some with decorated envelopes or with tokens tucked inside: a packet of tea, a couple of postcards, some postage stamps. Thank you all, so much. And thank you, too, for your thoughts and for your unwavering belief in the written (handwritten) word.
And your messages were homey and surprising and sometimes sweet. You wrote about how your mother wrote to you weekly when you were away at college and how you are now doing the same with your children; how you still write to your best friend from grade school; how you fell in love with letters when you got a pen pal 40 years ago.
Oh, let’s not have me summarize. Let’s hear from you, in your own words:
Debbi Anderson, Maple Grove: I, too, loved writing letters as a young person, and have always appreciated stamps. I still walk into the Osseo post office and ask for “pretty stamps” — birds, animals, nature. I teach first-graders in a public school, and in my classroom I have a “writing center” stocked with letter-writing and book-making supplies. I hope to motivate each year’s class of students to become letter writers.
Mary Tingblad, Minnetrista: It was a wonderful coincidence that I read your article today, as I was going through my stack of Sunday papers to find interesting articles to include with letters I send to deployed military personnel. I joined Soldiers’ Angels (soldiersangels.org) about two years ago. This weekend I wrote 12 letters, including one to my adopted Air Force servicewoman and one to a special ops chaplain. I agree that letter-writing has become a lost art, but I am not ready to give it up.
Jane Simon, Minneapolis: I am always delighted by a letter or a card. To receive a real letter is gold! My children were encouraged to write thank-you notes and now they seem to be raising their children to do the same, which delights me. They write such funny things. One grandchild wrote recently, “Dear Grandma Jane, thank you so much for the lovely money!”
Doug Harper, Forest Lake: Once I carried a battered box into a classroom (I’m a sociology prof) and told the class it contained my most precious objects. I then turned it upside down (to their horror) and hundreds of letters cascaded onto the floor. They were mostly from my parents when I lived in Boston and New York. There were many other packets of letters: precious objects that would arrive in an American Express office during a 6½-month wandering study abroad during the Vietnam years. Such a treasure to read them now.
I’m now writing my niece, a college freshman in Oregon. It’s great fun. I put them into an envelope and include a $20 bill and often a special book. This week it was Engels’ “Condition of the Working Class in 1844.” Poor kid. She says she likes them a lot and feels special because none of her friends have such weird relatives.
Norma Gaffron, New Brighton: Yes, letters in an envelope are special. And you can include things like a piece of fabric to show your sister in Milwaukee the material you are using to make new bedroom drapes.
Patsy Ramberg, White Bear Lake: My dad saved piles of letters. These are letters from ordinary people going about their lives. Such as:
“The tomatoes are ripening very slow. I have had some that measured 11½ inches around them and three inches thick. My cucumbers are still producing.”
“The past few days have been digging up our geraniums and potting them for the winter. They will be blooming thru January, in the house.”
“Where is your brother Henry now? I heard he was in MO. I hear his boy ‘Sonny Boy’ is a doctor now.”
I plan on saving all the letters. I don’t know what my kids will do with them. Maybe one will see them as the treasure they are — a social history of American life gone by.
Bryan Rogers, Little Canada: I come from a family of letter writers. On my maternal grandmother’s side, they had what they called the Round Robin. It was a large envelope that would circulate among a couple dozen or more of them. When the Round Robin arrived at your house, you would read all of the letters enclosed by the others, and remove your old letter and include a new letter, and send it on to the next person. It would only come around a couple of times a year, so it was always big fun when it would arrive.
Mary Ellen Bruski, Robbinsdale: The loss of letter-writing will cause future genealogists and family history writers to weep for what could have been. I am a genealogist and have been thrilled so many times upon finding an old letter or postcard that helped me figure out relationships and where people lived.
I have learned a lot about ancestors via postcards that are over 100 years old. Before home telephones were common they sometimes sent one another postcards across the same city to just say “I’m coming to see you Tuesday.” I have one cryptic card that is a real head scratcher, mailed from Toronto to St. Paul: “Well, I can’t say much until I hear from you, but I guess I will be OK.” Hope he or she was!
Harold Lieberman, St. Cloud: As a junior in high school in the late 1930s, I became interested in history. So I wrote the great historian Charles Beard — his address was in Who’s Who — to ask what one could do with a career in history. When two South American countries threatened to go to war over territory, I expressed my probably naïve concern to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. When I heard the N.Y. Philharmonic (on the radio) playing “Mark Twain Suite,” a new work by Jerome Kern, I wrote telling him how much I liked it. In each case I received a personal response.
In 2015, I ran across a brief biography of my first love during my Army days. I knew that she had died many years ago, but I thought her children might be interested in things I knew about her before they were born. So I wrote the daughter who had written her bio. And suddenly there was an explosion of excited phone calls, e-mails and letters from five of her children and a sister, all saying they knew about me as their mother’s “lost love,” but they never knew my surname. (It seems their grandmother had intercepted my letters, so my girl thought I had dumped her; the letters were discovered years later.) So I’m now closely connected to a wonderful and talented “alternate reality” family, some of whom have cross-countried to visit me. You never know when life will deal you an unexpected hand.
Now that I’m ancient — I’ll be 98 next month — I still write letters. Witness this.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.