Phil Gulley: Love Letter

Handwritten notes may be in trouble, but their fate has not yet been sealed.
Once a month, Constance, a lady in my Quaker meeting, writes my parents a letter. While she has never met my folks, she knows they’re in poor health and writes to encourage them. The letter comes to my house, then I take it to my parents. Constance’s handwriting is distinctive—I don’t have to open the letter to know it’s from her. Two thoughts often come to mind: Constance sure is nice and Why can’t I be more like Constance?

I used to be like Constance. I wrote one or two letters each day, mostly to people who needed cheering up. If someone did something nice, I’d write them a thank-you note. Sometimes, they’d send me a thank-you for my thank-you. I was never quite sure how to respond to that. Should you thank someone who thanked you for your thank-you? You can see how that might get out of hand, so after a while I stopped writing thank-you notes and just called people on the phone.

The United States Postal Service is facing bankruptcy because no one but Constance writes letters anymore. It’s cheaper to e-mail, text, message someone on Facebook, or call people on our cell phones. When I told my kids it used to cost extra to phone someone in the next town, they didn’t believe me.

“They called it long-distance and you paid more,” I told them.

We made our long-distance calls on Saturday and Sunday nights when it was cheaper. Even then, it was pricey, and you really had to love someone to call them long-distance. Phone calls were most expensive when you had to dial the operator and ask to be connected to so-and-so at such-and-such a number. Of course, if so-and-so wasn’t there, you didn’t have to pay for the call. My grandmother Norma phoned the operator every Sunday night and asked to be connected to Ralph at our number. The operator would phone our home, we would answer, the operator would say, “Person-to-person call for Ralph,” and we’d say “There’s no Ralph here,” thus saving my grandmother a phone charge while simultaneously letting her know we were fine. We stuck it to the phone company every Sunday night for years without the slightest pang of guilt.

Because handwritten letters are so rare these days, we’re excited whenever one lands in our mailbox. Our mail comes at 2 p.m. each afternoon, while my wife is at work. If we get a handwritten letter and I open it without her being there, she gets mad. Especially if it’s for her. It’s a little quirk of hers. So I wait until she gets home to read the mail. We sit at the kitchen table, use a paring knife to slit open the envelope, then carefully extract the letter, like a miner plucking a golden flake from his pan. She reads the letter aloud, pausing now and then to editorialize. A one-page letter can occupy us for hours.

The worst thing corporations do, apart from laying off people with no regard for their loyalty, is send us computer-generated letters that appear handwritten. We study the envelope, excited that someone from an unfamiliar address in Delaware has written us. A long-lost relative, perhaps. A childhood friend. An old flame. A lawyer writing to tell us we’ve been named in a will. A handwritten letter holds all sorts of promise. We sit at the kitchen table, slice the envelope, and pull out a letter informing us we can save up to 20 percent on our car insurance. Corporations do this because they know we’re more likely to open mail that looks handwritten. But it’s a sleazy thing to do, which is entirely in keeping with their character.

The next best thing to reading a hand-written letter sent to you is reading a handwritten letter sent to someone else. If I ever broke into a house, I wouldn’t steal a thing. I would, however, read every letter I could get my hands on. I’d look in the sock drawer first, which is where I keep the mail sent to me. A drawer-full of letters works better than an alarm. We burglar-types tend to be nosy and would get distracted reading the notes, lose track of time, and be caught by the owner three hours later.

In 1976, Harper & Row published the personal correspondence of E.B. White. Following White’s fondness for clarity, the book was titled The Letters of E.B. White. It begins with one he wrote to his brother Albert in 1908 at the age of 9, and concludes with a letter written to his stepson Roger in 1976. Sixty-eight years of private letters, a snooper’s heaven. The publisher wasn’t optimistic about its success, misjudging America’s fondness for window-peeping, but the book is still in print, chugging right along.

In 2011, our state legislature voted to end the requirement that schoolchildren learn cursive writing, hammering another nail in the coffin of the hand-written letter. Unable to write a letter today, we will be incapable of reading one tomorrow. Old letters seem well on their way to becoming hieroglyphics, a secret code, a head-scratching mystery.

Fortunately, whenever a government entity tries to eliminate something, there are those who consider it their duty to keep it alive. I’ve noticed a few encouraging signs for letter-writing lately. Fountain pens, nearly killed off by Bic, have made a comeback. Artisans are rolling out handmade paper—crisp, thick, and nicely textured, like good bread. The slow-food movement led to slow technology, followed by slow church and slow parenting, each an effort to savor our minutes rather than count them. Just as the handwritten letter settles in its grave, perhaps the slow-communication movement will pull back the shroud.

In my sock drawer is a letter written to me by a childhood friend, Tim Hadley, in 1977. We were both 16, working away from home for the summer—me at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, he at a farm near Michigantown. Tim’s letter was a precise account of pig castration, a topic I had, like most males, studiously avoided. It went into my sock drawer, survived four moves, ready and waiting to shed light should the need arise, which it did this past summer, when my son Spencer asked my help in castrating pigs on his farm.

“Have you castrated pigs before?” he asked.

“No, but I have a letter about it,” I said, pleased that a parchment I had saved 38 years was finally earning its keep.

I re-read the letter, nudged that long-slumbering knowledge awake, and then with a tenderness made possible by expert counsel, committed 20 male pigs to a lifetime of celibacy.

If the letter should die, all manner of gifts will be forever lost. No more comfort from Constance. No more mining for gold at the kitchen table. No more repositories of wisdom abiding with our socks, awaiting the hour to be savored once more.