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Hoping to revive the lost art of letter writing

When was the last time you received a letter in the mail?

I’m not talking about a utility bill or a mass mailing generated by a computer. I’m talking about a genuine letter from someone who actually knows you — maybe even one that was written by hand.

I cannot recall the last time I received an actual letter. I have, however, received some handwritten notes in thank-you cards and other small acknowledgments. Those certainly are nice to get, but I miss receiving pieces of mail that actually tell me about things that are going on in the lives of people I care about.

I understand why letters have fallen out of fashion. I grew up in the age of early computers and cellphones, and I know firsthand how quickly people accepted the convenience of sending an email or a text message.

When I was small, though, I write and received quite a few letters. I still remember writing to my grandmother, the late Nancy Lambert, who lived about three hours away in Jackson, Ohio. In fact, I even recall experiencing one of the “light-bulb moments” of my childhood while doing so.

I was sitting at my own little table in our living room at about age 4, writing a letter to my grandma about the brick street in front of our house being paved. I already knew my letters and how to spell a fairly large number of words, but as I wrote my late mother, Grace, would spell words aloud when I asked her about them.

As part of my tale about the street paving, I wrote to my grandma that a new “POTS” sign had been put up at the corner. When Mom looked at my work, she took me outside and had me look at that sign. She explained that while all the letters were right, the order of the letters made a big difference and that “POTS” and “STOP” were two very different words.

When we went back inside, she had me pick up my fat, round pencil. She then placed her hand over mine and explained that the hand I always chose to hold pencils and crayons with was my right hand, and that letters in words should always be in order from left to right. She told me the same about words in sentences. Something clicked for me that day, and I have been reading and writing almost constantly ever since.

Later, in the second grade, each child in the Union Local School District was matched up with a pen pal in the second grade in another district school building. I don’t remember who my pen pal was, but I remember exchanging letters — and being the courier who carried letters between buildings, because attended class in Belmont while Mom taught in Morristown and Flushing.

That was a valuable experience for me, since my best friend at the time, Gwynn Beyer, moved away. She and her family moved first to Kentucky and later to Pennsylvania. We stayed in touch by exchanging letters with one another on a regular basis for at least seven or eight years.

But letters can also hold some additional value that the writer and recipient may not realize at the time.

After my parents passed away, it was necessary for me to go through my mother’s papers. I’m not talking about the normal amount of paper that a person might find in the home of a deceased loved one. My mother documented and kept just about everything, so there were boxes upon boxes to go through, in addition to multiple filing cabinets.

But there among the old utility bills, bank statements and typed or handwritten notes about anything and everything that crossed Mom’s mind were some letters from friends and family members. I found those old letters to be far more valuable than all of the other records she kept.

I found letters from my grandmother, telling about things that were happening “down home.” She write that my grandfather, the late Chauncey Lambert, was battling bouts of vertigo, which my mother also dealt with on occasion. She wrote about school activities that my cousins were involved in. And, every once in a while, she included a bit of neighborhood gossip.

I also found letters from aunts and cousins. Sometimes they were simply telling my parents the news of the day. Other times they were clearly venting and missing having my mother around to listen.

From those letters, I learned about illnesses that family members suffered. I discovered some of the relationship woes that led some of my cousins to get divorced. I got to see the excitement relatives had when they informed my parents that a new baby was on the way. In short, I gained a lot of insight into the things that made my family members the people that I knew.

The price of a standard “Forever stamp” is 55 cents these days. Sending an email or a text message is “free” — if you don’t count the cost of phone or internet service that makes it possible. Somehow, though, those types of communications ring hollow compared to a heartfelt letter from someone who truly wants to connect with you.

I think I’ll buy a book of stamps next week and give letter writing a shot again. Maybe you should, too. It would definitely be a good way to surprise someone.

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