“I thought I’d write,” the letter begins, “as we’re timing contractions. I saw the good doctor this afternoon and he said any time now…”
On Oct. 30, 1969, my sister began this letter to me when she was about to give birth to her second child. By the time she finished the letter, she and her baby girl were home.
Remember when people wrote letters? And even if you were in labor, you might begin a letter?
This year marks the 75th anniversary of V-Mail, V for “Victory.” V-Mail was developed during World War II to save cargo space. Letters to and from soldiers were written on specially formatted paper. They were then censored and photographed at thumbnail size onto microfilm. The film was flown overseas; the letters were reconstituted at one-quarter the original size, then delivered. Such a complicated process. It seems like a lot of trouble. It acknowledged the importance of the connections created by personal letters.
I don’t remember V-Mail. But I once asked my mother if she knew about it. “Oh, sure,” she said. “I used it all the time.” She corresponded with her younger brother serving in North Africa.
The poignancy, quirkiness, and affection of personal letters come through as I sort though the storage box marked “Letters” in an upstairs closet.
What treasures! Letters from my husband when he was still my boyfriend, working in Germany. From my sister in the early years of our marriages, after she and her husband moved away. From a college friend in the Peace Corps. From another friend who lived too far away for regular visits.
When I was a young adult, still living at home as I worked and studied, the rest of the family went camping every summer. My mother wrote to me and, occasionally, so did the younger kids. I had totally forgotten those letters.
Here’s a passage from the two older boys, age 11 and 10, written in pencil, in tidy cursive.
“[We] would like to ask you a favor. Would you please check the turtle eggs daily to see if they have hatched. If + when they do, put them in (oops! The eggs are in a Hills Bros. Coffee can in our room.) a dry bowl for 1 day. The next day, put them in with Goldfinger + some fish food. Feed same as Goldfinger.”
Our little sister, age 5, added a page in sprawling print with brown crayon: “Dear jan Are the turtle eggs hatched? Love Cathy.” Her “Y” is backward.
I must report that, much to my relief, the turtle eggs did not hatch on my watch.
The younger boys, ages 8 and 7, sent an original poem, printed in pencil with some words elaborately decorated.
“I wonder why, I wonder how, / I see a horse, I see a cow. / I read a book, / I see some trees, / I eat an apple, / I hate these bees. / I eat, I sleep, I drink, / I Always Always Always Think, / The creek does stink, / I climb a tree, I see a bird, / I think that racoon is absurd.”
They signed the poem: “Juvenile Delinquete” and “the WorryWart.”
Today’s instant messages and emails convey verbal information. But a handwritten letter conveys so much more depth and personality.
The practice of writing such letters might be comatose, but it is not dead. We can revive it.
As my Peace Corps friend wrote in her first letter from the Philippines: “I’ll write if you will.”
She wrote, I wrote. That was almost 50 years ago. Sometimes, we still write.