When our COVID lock down began in March, my wife and I wanted to create some sort of normality in the household for our sake, but especially for the kids. One of the daily routines that happened organically was our trip to the mailbox at around 3:00 every afternoon once my wife and I were done working from home for the day. Since we live in a relatively new neighborhood, it takes about 15 minutes round trip to walk. It was simple, but it grew into a way to get outside, away from our screens, to talk together about the day, and discuss any anxieties we were having.
After a few weeks of following this routine, our nine year old daughter began resisting the idea of walking to the mailbox. We were basically having to force her to go, which we didn’t want to do. Yes, it was getting progressively warmer (this is Southeast Texas after all). By 3:00 it is scorching, but that didn’t seem to be the problem. So we put on our educator hats and dug a little deeper.
After some coaxing, we found out our daughter was upset because she never got any mail. (At this point, I refrained from telling her that most of what we got was either junk mail or bills. There’s a time and place for my sarcasm. This wasn’t it.)
My wife explained to her that if she wanted to get mail from someone, she was going to need to send mail to someone. Maybe then, they would write back, and she would get mail. And that’s what she did. (I found a little irony in my daughter texting her friend to get a home address, but hey, whatever.)
Letter writing seems like a bit of a lost art. Historians often use written correspondence to tell stories about individuals and events. As an example, if you read the book Hamilton (not just watch the play), you’ll see that Ron Chernow relied heavily on the correspondence between Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries in order to tell a compelling story.
It will be interesting to see how historians will handle our increasingly paperless society decades from now when they tell our stories. People don’t really write letters much anymore. Most of our communication is electronic and is guarded by privacy laws. We check in places on Facebook and post pictures of our dinner on Instagram. We Tweet short messages about topics important to us, and dance on apps named after the sound a clock makes. (For the record, there are NO videos of me dancing. It would break the Internet.) Unless you are a public official whose Tweets are being archived by a government entity, any private electronic correspondence may not be available for historians once we pass on. Even if it is available for them, could you image sifting though all of the cat videos and food pictures to find something meaningful?
Technically, based on the year I was born, I’m part of Generation X, but there is a relatively small subset of us who are sometimes referred to as Xennials. Basically, we grew up without much in the way of technology, smart phones, and Internet, but we were introduced to these new concepts early enough in life that we adapted better than some of the older Gen Xers. I had a computer in high school (and a dot-matrix printer), but no Internet. I didn’t get my first cell phone until just before college graduation. All it would do is make calls. I could text, but that cost a lot extra…and none of my friends had cell phones yet anyway.
I had a French pen pal while I was in high school. It was part of an assignment for my French II class. Her name was Cecil. I didn’t keep any of her letters, and I hope she didn’t keep any of mine either. My French was awful. Even though I don’t still have those letters, I still remember much of what she wrote. The written word is funny like that.
When we moved last year, I used that as an opportunity to go through boxes that hadn’t been touched in the better part of a decade. In one of the boxes I found a stack of old letters I’d received from friends during my freshman year in college. It was fun to read back through them, but I was curious why I only had letters from that one year. Then I remembered: email.
My first email address was my college email, but during my freshman year, many of my friends back home and at other schools didn’t have (or didn’t use) an email address. So I wrote them letters, and they wrote back. By my sophomore year, that changed, and the letters stopped. I couldn’t tell you the last time I hand wrote a letter. I know I sent emails to my friends too, but I no longer have any of that correspondence.
For the next few days after our daughter sent her first letter, she basically ran all the way to the mailbox. She was disappointed that nothing came for her, but the anticipation each day was fun to watch. When her first letter finally arrived, you would have thought it was an early Christmas present, her face beaming. It made me wonder if grownups get still get that excited when they get mail that isn’t asking for their money. Maybe I should write a letter to someone and find out.
Or maybe I’ll just post a picture of my dinner on the Internet.