Long before smartphones, my father knew how to text. He wrote postcards.
On his office desk, he kept a stack of the tan, 5-cent stamped, blank postcards sold at the post office. The addresses were pre-typed (by his secretary) so when he got the notion all he had to do was grab one, scribble a few lines (always vertically), and put it in his wooden outbox. At college 2,000 miles away, I could count on one showing up in my mailbox once a week or so.
There was the mundane: “The dog got an upset tummy Wednesday and is vacationing again with his un-favorite vet.” There was business: “I think you are clear that I am not sending you a plane ticket for next week.” There were health updates: “After three days of exercises my stomach muscles are vibrant with new strength and [sic] believe my back feels better.”
Occasionally, there was the poetic: “I wish you could have seen the moon on the snow at the house last night.” And at least once there was big news, in this case about my brother: “Hold your hat. He says he and Kathy want to be married in September as soon as he gets out of the Peace Corps.”
Those postcards made me nuts.
Who the heck communicates in 100 words, I would grouse, rolling my eyes. And pre-addressed by his secretary? Seriously? Why couldn’t he write real letters like my mother, who could spin out four pages on lovely folded stationery in her distinctive hand — letters meant to be savored, not scanned? Did I rate only a few sentences?
When I was at college in the late 1960s, writing was our major communication. Long-distance calls were expensive and inconvenient. There were only a half-dozen phones for the 100 or so girls in the dorm, all of them balancing parents and lovers — and, c’mon, I had a life.
The first year at least, I dutifully wrote my parents every week about term paper subjects or a professor’s quirks or, circumspectly, a date. Of course, there was much I didn’t mention: my struggles to understand physics, my worries over the proper blue jeans, my decreasing interest in maintaining my virginity.
My father considered my letters gold . . . and public information. He grew up in a family that corresponded constantly, producing thousands of letters saved by his mother. So if one of my letters was particularly well written, he would make copies and send them out to the relatives — his sisters, my mother’s aunts, my older siblings. I still have one in which I ask him to please not make a copy. All I have is the photocopy.
Maybe with his own three children, he was done with letter writing. And, of course, short was safer. He would never write to me, the youngest, about all the things that I now might empathize with: his fears about retirement, his worries about my mother’s health, his sadness at their empty nest, even the aging dog.
Yet, his postcards must have touched something in me because I saved several. And all these years later, I wish I could apologize to him for my 18-year-old snobbishness and inability to appreciate how much they said. I think of him often when I’m on a text thread with my children, so glad to be included, so grateful for that momentary peek into their heads. My father would have loved their texts: the quick humor, the photo sharing, the immediacy of the link across time zones, their desire to stay connected.
And he would appreciate that when I can’t see my grandchildren, I send them postcards as a change-up from our chaotic FaceTime encounters. They like the novelty of real mail, and I’ve finally learned a short postcard says it all: “I love you.”
Susan Moeller is a writer and editor who lives on Cape Cod. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.