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Correspondence Course

by Julia Sneden

Like most of the rest of the world, I have become an email addict.  Its a distinct thrill when my window comes up with checking mailreceiving mail2 unread messages  Its also a distinct disappointment when the window clears after checking mail and I realize there is nothing new waiting for me. The immediacy of email is surely a marvel. I love writing to my daughter-in-law in California in the morning, and finding an answer the same or next day.
      But nothing equals the excitement of receiving an honest-to-God snail mail letter through the mail slot in my front door. Shuffling through the ads, bills and catalogues (not much excitement there!) and coming up with a real letter with my name on it, is akin to finding that prize in the bottom of the cereal box, back when I was a kid. Theres nothing like it.
     In the first place, its tangible. The envelope has heft and character. It can be carried to a private spot for solitary consumption, or put on a shelf to prolong the anticipation, or ripped open and fecklessly tossed aside after a quick look at the contents. Those contents can be squirreled away for my eyes only, or left on the table for others to read, or read aloud to my family, if theyre something Im of a mind to share. One can, of course, print out an email, but its not the same as holding a piece of stationery with someone elses handwriting on it.
      I come from a family of communicators. I am told that once her eight children were grown and out of the nest, my great grandmother wrote to each one every Sunday for the rest of her life (she lived to the age of 92). Those same children started a round robin letter that went to the households of each sibling, in succession. Each household removed its last letter and added a new one before sending it on within the week. 
      As their children grew up and left home, the list expanded. By the time I was a child, we even had Robin stationery, with a drawing of a robin in a circle at the top of the page. The Robin went to about seventeen households, and I remember the joy with which my grandmother or great aunt would sing out The Robins come! when that fat envelope showed up a couple of times each year. The letters it held were first read aloud, and later perused separately by the grownups in our family. Listening to those letters gave me a profound sense of connectedness. My fathers family had nothing like The Robin, and perhaps as a result, I was much hazier on those relationships. I knew every name of every member of my maternal grandmothers family, even though I had not met most of them. I knew where they lived and how they were related. I knew which ones were favorites of my grandmother and her sister, and which were sources of worry.
      By the time I was grown The Robin had made its last flight, lost somewhere between generations. The descendants of Great Grandmothers eight children had become too numerous, and too removed from one another by time and distance, to sustain contact. Of the original eight, only my grandmother and one her brothers were still alive. The dear old Robin has served its purpose, Grandmother wrote, and it is time for it to fold its wings and rest. 
      My own parents were busy people, but they also wrote letters, once my brother and I were grown and gone from home. My mother had always written to my grandmother whenever they were apart, from the time she went off to college until my grandmother died more than fifty years later. When my brother and I left home, my mother simply made carbon copies of Grandmothers weekly letter.
       My father became a letter writer only after his retirement. Before then, he kept up with us by an occasional phone call. Once he started writing letters, however, he, too, used a carbon. Both parents personalized the copies by adding a line or two of handwritten communication. As the youngest sibling, the copies I received tended to be smudged and at times illegible, at least the ones from Mother, who made two copies (the original went to my grandmother), and used a manual, lightweight typewriter. My fathers carbons were always crisp (thank you, old faithful IBM Selectric!). Both parents were hunt-and-peck typists, and their letters were full of strikeovers, cross-outs, and just plain mistakes. It didnt matter. We loved receiving them, even though a letter from a parent is often a reminder that youre not really as grown up as you see yourself. Its not the contents that matter; its the contact.
      My fathers letters tended to be short, except when they offered scientific information and explanation, and even then, they were economical and clear.  Mothers, on the other hand, contained long, detailed descriptions of where she and my stepfather had been, what they had done, and whom they had seen, detailed to the point of tedium. She was much more enthusiastic about her life than anybody else could be.
      By far the most rewarding letters Ive received over the past 30 years have been exchanged more or less weekly with a dear friend. We have an epistolary relationship that manages to be fun, supportive, challenging, enlarging, and comfortable, all at once. I wouldnt trade it for anything in the world.
      She is someone I knew casually when we were in college. She went to school where my stepfather taught, and she and I spent one summer mutually employed in an outdoor drama (a good summer job for college students in those days). After that, I didnt see or hear from her for several years, but we kept track of one another through mutual friends, and later on, she married my husbands best friend and working partner.  For the next few years, we all lived in a town in eastern North Carolina. (Theres nothing like a small town for helping people of like mind to find each other. I made more friends there in a very short time than ever I made in the big cities where I worked after college).  My friend and I got into a few scrapes together; shared world views; enjoyed my children (the eldest could have been hers, he looked so like her); bore up under our husbands absurd work loads; kvetched to each other when no one understood us, and sometimes when they did.
      In 1970, my family moved some 200 miles away, and my friend and I began writing the letters. They are almost always fairly short, a couple of pages handwritten on a legal pad.  I havent saved her letters, and I dont think she has saved mine.  I suspect that neither of us would be able to write with spontaneity if we knew the letters were being kept. Looking back over the 30 years, however, I would give a good deal to reread the whole correspondence, if only for the sentimental journey it would surely provide. 
      She writes a good letter. So do I. The real delight, however, is just knowing that every week or two, I can count on finding in my mailbox a long envelope with her handwriting on it. For a few happy moments I will be engaged by the way her mind works, charmed by her sense of humor, comforted by her understanding.  And I will bask in the fact that someone I love and admire is willing to spend the time to share her thoughts with me.  For a small investment in pens and legal pads, thats a mighty rich return.

 

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