A letter arrived a few weeks ago, an honest-to-God old-fashioned letter tucked in an envelope and delivered by the US Postal Service. Among the bills, it stood out because there it was, a plain, white envelope, with my name and address spelled out in actual handwriting.
My 17-year-old grandson cannot read handwriting. He’s smart. He knows the properties of positive integers and can debate number theory until the cows come home. But he cannot read or write cursive because cursive, he’s been told, is a thing of the past.
I held this thing of the past in my hand for a solid minute studying the the flourish on the “Bs” and the loop on the “Cs” wondering, is this the Palmer method or the Rinehart method? Then I grabbed my letter opener (another thing of the past), sat down at my kitchen table, slit open the letter, and read every word.
Most everyone e-mails these days. And texts. Of course we do. Digital messages are easier. Faster. Immediate. Cheaper. I love them, texts and e-mails and Zoom and FaceTime and WhatsApp and every bit of technology that connects us. I would not give up any one of these things to go back to before
But I don’t want to give up the art of writing, either. Writing with a pen. Penmanship, whether it’s all cursive or a combination of cursive and print. Writing physical letters and cards. Signing a name, not just typing it. Because you get a sense of a person by seeing their script, by the size and slant and steadiness of it. And because — and this is the most important reason we should not abandon penmanship — years later when the writer of that script is gone, when you stumble upon a card or a letter they sent, for a few magical seconds that person won’t be gone at all. She, he, they will be right beside you.
I don’t want to give up this connection with the eternal. I look at a card my grandmother sent when I graduated from high school, I see her handwriting and I see her. Same with Janet Butler, a friend whose penmanship never changed, not in all the years I knew her.
Technology augments. It does not replace.
For example: e-books. I love that you can borrow them from the library without ever leaving home. I love that you can download them in seconds. I love that when you come to a word you don’t know, you can click it and get its definition. I love that you can change the text size and read in the dark.
Bit I also love real books, not just because of their heft and their smell, new or old, but because someone turned down a page and you wonder why, because in a real book you can underline your favorite passages (underlining an e-book is highlighting and that’s not the same). And because of the inscriptions you sometimes find in books in old book stores: “Happy 19th Birthday. I love you. May you live in peace and harmony more often than not. Love, Scott.” (Were the giver and the gifted friends? A couple? Brother and Sister?)
I have, in an upstairs closet, a small wooden box that is a miniature hope chest (another anachronism), which was given free, for many years, to girl high school graduates by Lane Furniture in Brockton. In it I have letters written to me 55 years ago by the man I married 53 years ago, a letter my mother-in-law’s father wrote to her in 1917, and a tiny grainy photo of my father as a boy.
I have some e-mails, saved too, though not in that box. Twenty-three years ago, when e-mail was new, my son moved to England. I printed and posted some of what he wrote in my journal.
But I don’t do that now. Now he’s back in the UK with his wife and children and he texts and e-mails and we all do FaceTime and it’s immediate and fun and satisfying. But when it’s over it’s over. There’s no record of it. And in time all these texts and e-mails will be forgotten.
Because e-mails and texts are like fast food. They do the trick. They fill you up. Sometimes they are even delicious. But they’re eaten on the run and are not memorable.
A handwritten letter, on the other hand, is like fine dining. A wait staff, cloth napkin, wine sipped from a stemmed glass, maybe a little piano music. It’s relaxing. It’s an occasion.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. Read more at beverlybeckham.com.