A Cache of Letters
While reading a book a couple of days ago, I was compelled for an unknown reason to look through my box of old photographs and memorabilia. It was related to a story that took place, in part, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I’d visited Kuala Lumpur in 1989 – I recall the date because I went to the movies to see “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” while there. It played in English with Chinese, Arabic and Indian subtitles and the theatre was pristine.
I digress. In rummaging through my bins, I found a cache of letters I’d written to my parent and grandfather from 1977 to 1993. My parents had saved every letter I’d written while a university student and as an expatriate so that I would have a journal of my experiences. When they brought them to me a few years ago, I tossed them in a bin, never thinking I would want to read them. But for some reason, this book that had nothing to do with my life other than a few scenes occurring in Malaysia, triggered in me a feeling of nostalgia I’d not anticipated. When I saw the cache of letters, I suddenly felt the need to reconnect with the person I’d been – to discover how I’d changed and grown. I wanted to remember.
After reading a couple of the letters I was struck by how writing letters has become passé’. People today utilize text messages, phone calls and email to communicate. What will the legacy be?
Since the time of Cicero, the written word has given historians insight into the past. As one who eagerly reads biographies that have been written with facts substantiated by original sources, I understand the value of even the most mundane written word – be it household inventories, letters, a menu, official transcripts, court documents, or accounting records. Snippets of records have afforded biographers insights into the live of those who came before us.
Even reviewing my own correspondence, I am amazed at the details of every day life I shared with my loved ones – details that from my perspective 35 years later – nobody should care about. But it is a portrait of a life lived during a certain time, in certain places, with certain people in a particular socioeconomic strata - picture of a moment in time in the latter part of the 20th Century. I write to my parents weekly of the mundane. During the same time, my parents and my grandfather wrote weekly letters sharing the same every day experiences.
But the world has changed with the advances of technology. Letter writing, after millennia, has become obsolete. People have forgotten the pleasure of writing a letter, of sharing one’s experiences, hopes and dreams on beautiful stationary, written with a glorious writing instrument. There is something special about receiving written correspondence from one who has selected the paper, or postcard or beautiful card from a museum shop and taken the time to share a part of him or herself on paper, addressed the envelope, paid for a stamp and went to the trouble of mailing it. There is nothing like the joy of receiving a letter from a loved one written in that person’s own hand, reading it over and over again, holding it close to one’s heart, placing it lovingly in a drawer or box or under a pillow. A letter touches the heart, mind, soul or psyche of a human in a way that electronic communications cannot. An email or text is easy, it takes little effort, and it doesn’t offer the same comfort as a letter. And people don’t edit texts or emails so much. Before one sends a letter, he or she rereads it, tears it up, rewrites, thinks about it and then puts it in the mail.
I thank my parents for the gift of saving those letters. Today, decades later, it is a connection with my past that affords me a deeper understanding of where I’ve been and the road I’ve traveled - a testament to a life of experience. Memories are fleeting. But in my own hand, I can see that my memory filtered out much. I see a life much fuller than I recalled and am grateful for the chance to revisit those times. I plan to read them all, one by one, on my journey of self-discovery that I’d once thought finished. But it is never over as long as we have breath.
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