Decades ago, the Christmas season was often the busiest and most stressful time for post offices. I still remember those days when I would set the first week of December for writing short notes and letters on Hallmark greeting cards for friends and relatives living far and away. I would even mark the date when I needed to post my letter in time for Christmas Day. Hence, letters and greeting cards would have to be in the post before the December 15 just to make sure it got to its destination on time.
These days, most youngsters will probably never appreciate how distinct letter writing is. In my teens, penmanship and perfect parsing were immensely valued, when one’s upbringing was reflected in how neatly and how well one wrote. Long gone too are the times when you would have to step up the post office counter with your letter in hand, and have this weighed. As the postal lady hands you a stack of stamps, you then have to stick these onto the envelopes before dropping them in the slots marked for local or foreign endpoints. Now, that’s what we call snail mail.
During summer breaks in the States in my teens, I recall being so excited to drop my handwritten letters in the blue mailboxes on most street corners. At that time, we didn’t have our local version of the mailbox so that the blue mailbox was an attraction all its own. Each trip to the bookshop would be half spent scouring through greeting cards, choosing the most unique ones with fancy-colored envelopes.
In grade school, I remember so well how we were asked to write a friendly letter to a pen pal from a sister school. As we all waited for the return letter, we all excitedly anticipated who our pen pal would be from a strange and unknown continent at that time. I guess now, the idea of pen pals is so remote for kids that they wouldn’t even consider writing someone who doesn’t have a selfie or who can’t be googled online.
Maybe then, it is the art of writing love letters that many young people might be missing out on most. Will young lovers ever receive love letters written as beautifully and eloquently as in the past? Years after my father’s demise, we read through a box of his love letters to my mom. Each word, each message revealed so much about our dad’s character and life story that we would not have known otherwise. For centuries, it was in the love letter that men and women expressed ever so candidly their true sentiments. In those days, love letters were impeccable prose forms.
Perhaps it is nostalgia for things past that I pine for handwritten letters in the post. Or maybe it simply is a sense of conservative thinking—that the way it was is always better? Yet, we recognize that many famous letters propelled events in history and defined periods in literature. For whatever trivial reasons I may have for missing the feel of laid paper and the smell of dabbed perfume on stationery, letters are keepsakes that I can stow in my memory box.
My teenaged son, Santi, though begs to disagree with the idea that letter writing is a dying art, a fading practice. It seems to him that it merely has taken a new form. To his mind, the letter isn’t an extinct form; but rather one that is evolving in its digital form. My son may have some point after all; that it isn’t the form that is important but the meaning of the written text. I guess in the end the written thoughts of affection, amity, and sincerity in written letters are those that are truly important. And whether that letter ultimately ends up posted as email or snail mail does not really matter after all.
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