The Gift of Hand-Written Letters

OK, not everything about the good old days was all that good. But handwriting? For intimacy, eloquence and personal expressiveness in communication no replacement has been offered. Social media, photo apps, zoom calls all dissolve into a kind of frozen distance once you’ve taken a screenshot; but a few lines in the hand of a familiar are with you forever.

I miss cursive. I mourn the old fourth grade Locker Method exercises that drove us all nuts. I miss handwritten letters. When you got a handwritten letter you got the bona fide person, coming headlong into your heart through the mail slot. If it was a message from your mom, there was comfort before even opening the envelope. If it came from a lover, your heartbeat would quicken just at seeing your own name, as if spoken in your ear.

In the olden days one learned to print, but it was considered juvenile and (rightly) time consuming. Some bastardized quasi-cursive now functions for personal signatures and for those stalwarts who write actual notes on very special occasions. But with cursive the words flow, the emotions transfer to the page; individuality and identity are forever sealed into one’s signature. Entire careers have been built on the science of graphology: tiny handwriting = shy, studious, meticulous; big, bold handwriting = assertive, gregarious. Ugly handwriting? Maybe you’re just very smart and your brain gets ahead of your penmanship. Whatever. The key here is the writing – and printing is not writing. I miss cursive. Longhand, the real thing.

My father learned handwriting early in the 20th century – probably in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere in rural Texas. Same for my mother in the farm country of Virginia. They were both born in 1897, into families with no money or resources but a ferocious dedication to education. My father, therefore, graduated from SMU (among the first of its graduating classes) and my mother, after two years of high school – her only post-elementary education – finished at the top of her 1918 class at Virginia’s Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. Over the half-century of their courtship and marriage they exchanged daily letters whenever they were apart – which was often. Hundreds of their letters survived; a few I could not toss when my sisters and I buried our father. (He outlived my mother by 20 years, those years punctuated by handwritten letters to his family, friends and newspaper editors until his eyes were no longer up to the task.)

My beloved’s longhand was of the tiny-scribble variety, but it served him well during his early ace-reporter days, and for about six more decades of note-taking at board meetings, art auctions, a limitless variety of occasions for which electronic devices now offer a cold alternative. Stare at an iPhone all you want, no emotion will ever rise from its impersonal digits no emoji is likely to express accurate emotion. You can always even print out that Word doc letter, but it will never reveal the person behind the word. Ah, longhand.