If the world were divided into two camps – those who love email and those who lament the decline of the personal letter – I would join the email camp.
Despite that preference, I miss the weekly letters my mother sent until a few weeks before her death and, perhaps more surprising, I miss writing the weekly letters to her. I began writing regular letters home when I started working full-time, even though my first job after college was only an hour from my hometown. As I moved farther away — from central to eastern Nebraska, Missouri, and New York — handwritten weekly letters continued and personal visits became less frequent.
When my parents lived in separate towns after my father entered a nursing home, I started photocopying my letter so both could read it. While making the copy on the printer/fax/copier/scanner I used for telecommuting during my pregnancy and first few months of motherhood, I realized I could scan pictures of the babies, write the letter on the computer with a photo inserted, and print two copies for the two destinations. If I didn’t have enough news for two pages, I would fill the space with additional photos, made even easier as we started to use a digital camera.
After my father died, I continued sending computer-written letters with photos to my mother. A few years ago, I started generating a second copy again, this time for my mother-in-law.
The weekly letters became my journal, chronicling life’s moments big and small. I wrote the letters on Sunday evenings to drop in the mail on Mondays. My last letter to my mother was mailed the day I was unexpectedly called back to Nebraska for her final days.
The letter arrived while I was sitting vigil at her bedside, but she was too ill to read the usual news about tooth fairy visits, soccer, and Girl Scout activities or see photos of her grandsons on the skateboards they bought with their birthday money.
After her death I wrote her one final letter — in my head. It starts out with a description of her funeral, the many flowers and plants that surrounded her casket, and the great lunch her friends served to our extended family. It recounts the laughter my sisters and brother shared while collecting photos for the DVD the funeral home compiled. I admit that I felt both scared and relieved when she stopped breathing but those surprising reactions soon gave way to sadness tempered by gratitude for her long life. I tell her how strong I was then – and about the moments since when I was not.
I have returned to chronicling life’s moments through Sunday letters to my mother-in-law. These letters, which she saves in a notebook for my children, have a value that all the megabytes and transmission speed in the world cannot match. Maybe the world needs a hybrid email/snail mail camp for people like me.