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Dear Mr. Roberts,* ….and Thanks

Hickey-Donna
ByDonna Warren Hickey

I stayed in a really old hotel last night. They sent me a wake-up letter.

Steven Wright

Finding a letter in the mailbox is like receiving an unexpected gift. When I was a pre-teen, I  had a crush on Adam Cartwright – you remember – Pa’s eldest son, brother to Hoss and Little Joe. Brooding, serious, dressed in black – so I wrote to him. And he wrote me back. I held this personal letter in my hands and danced around my living room like Rumpelstiltskin danced around the fire while anticipating his prize. From that day, I was smitten by letter writing.

The frequent, personal, handwritten letter is a relic from a bygone era. But for me, letter writing is a calming, centering experience. Writing uses a different part of the brain than speaking, so for those who tend to be listeners rather than talkers, letter writing allows more freedom of expression. All facets of a letter writer’s personality are present at once – the humorous, gossipy, serious and gentle sides flow one into another. Letter writing allows me to be alone, yet connected to the person I am giving full attention to in this conversation on paper.

Some of the letters I treasure most are from my nephew whose childhood writings reveal traces of a little boy. His earlier letters were pictures he drew in fluorescent crayon with short notes or single words on them. When he was five, he discovered sticky notes and wrote slanted “I love you’s” that filled the entire 3” x 3” paper. He hid them in unexpected places, and when I showed him that I found his “letters,” he would clamp his dimpled, kindergartner’s hands over his mouth in uncontainable glee. At eight he wrote a thank you note five weeks after Christmas that said, “I just hope the mening[sic] of this leter [sic]has not expiered [sic].”

Just what purpose do collected letters serve? At the very least, a brief visit to another time. Upon paring down the household to make a move southward, my mother came across several boxes of letters I saved from my high school years – pen pal letters from Mexico, Japan, France, Spain and England. I touched each one in the way a white-gloved museum curator would handle an artifact from the past. To me, the tissue-like airmail envelope of each letter was as precious as the simple treasures that Boo Radley left in the tree for Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. As an adolescent, I must have read my pen pals’ letters hundreds of times, because as I pored over them many years later, the correspondents’ names and handwriting styles were instantly familiar.

My friends and I were ardent Beatles fans. Norma Strode, a teenager from Liverpool, England, was a prolific and generous pen pal who regularly included in her letters photographs of my personal Beatle, Ringo, and other Beatles memorabilia that we did not receive in the U.S. media. In one of the letters, I found British chewing gum still in its original wrapper and a yellowed pass to the Cavern, the nightclub where the Beatles first performed. My friends also had pen pals from Liverpool, but they agreed that Norma wrote the best letters and anticipated reading her news and clippings as much as I did. Decades later, I can touch the past and remember a significant cultural milestone of the mid-1960s.

A letter multiplies an event and allows it to live on. Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish author of Don Quixote, once wrote, “The pen is the tongue of the mind.” I wonder what future historians will use to write about the 21st century. In our instantly disposable texting and e-mail world, we will have left almost nothing in the way of personal accounts of our culture, since most people use the Internet to get news and information from one place to another. We forget what an important part letter writing used to play in people’s lives. Reading published letters of well-known and ordinary people offers insights into their characters and personalities and gives the reader a private entrance into their era.

In graduate school, one of the most perceptive books on Revolutionary Mexico was not from the recommended and required reading, but one by Edith O’Shaughnessy, wife of U.S. Chargé d’affaires Nelson O’Shaughnessy assigned to the port city of Veracruz, Mexico. The book consists entirely of daily, conversational letters to her mother detailing O’Shaughnessy’s experience as a diplomat’s wife in 1914 Mexico. Reading these letters reflected an educated woman knowledgeable about Mexican politics and geography, war in Mexico, Mexican society and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Her clear observations gave me an insider’s view of a Mexico from a century ago.

Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999 is a favorite book that teems with handwritten letters to and from the famous, infamous and not-so-famous. Each letter presents a momentary look into the writer’s time and experience during momentous events that impacted the 20th century. How else would I be privy to what Theodore Roosevelt offered as a father in his letter to son Kermit or how a Titanic survivor described the ordeal in a letter to his girlfriend days after the ship sank? To read personal letters from a time that I will never know – a WWI doctor’s account of the outbreak of influenza to a colleague, an unemployed worker’s desperate letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s joint letter to their children the day before their execution, novelist James Baldwin’s intense letter on race and integration to his teenage nephew – is to complement layers of knowledge to my perspective on the world.

Personal letters and notes don’t have to be long to be meaningful; they just have to be. Be thought about, be written, be sent. I’m not advocating ditching e-mail and texting, as if we could. Communicating with speed is seductive and efficient. I could not function without either, and most of my correspondence is via Internet, but if I really want to convey the human touch in our high-tech world, I still send a stamped letter or card.

In a postscript he wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, Ernest Hemingway asked him to write back, and then queried, “Or don’t you like to write letters? I do because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something.”

*Actor Pernell Roberts portrayed Adam Cartwright, wrote to the young author and taught her the value of receiving a handwritten letter.

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