Taking Pen in Hand

Years of letters

In 1979, when I moved from Ohio to teach at the University of Minnesota-Morris, I was lonely and homesick, so I wrote long letters to my sister, parents, and close friends every week. I couldn’t afford to make as many phone calls as I wanted. One 30-minute weekend call cost around $6, which would be close to $18 in today’s dollars. Four weekend calls per month would add up $72 today. When my oldest son moved to California last June, I thought about those letters again. How much they helped. All of the love they represented.

I don’t know why I saved them when I was 25-29 and again when I was 33-35, but I wasn’t the only one who kept them. My mother and sister did too, which is why I have the ones I sent as well as the ones I received.

Why did I hang onto the letters long after I received them? They are my history. They were a lifeline when I was far from home. They felt valuable even if I didn’t know why. I was in my 40’s before I recognized that writing personal stories (essays, memoir, and blogs) would be my genre.

Writing letters was a creative outlet as well as a way to stay connected. I used a good pen and carefully chose stationery that expressed my taste—maybe something embossed with a seashell or printed with a Sandra Boynton cartoon. Sometimes I invented fake memos and typed them on official university stationery. Writing those letters made me feel more real at a time when I felt isolated and out of my element. Spinning yarns about my boring life made it more bearable.

Alter ego








Reading letters was a ritual. Finding a letter in the mail made my day. They were a shot of love, a touchstone that centered me and helped restore my equilibrium. I didn’t tear them open in the hallway by the apartment mailboxes and speed-read them. Instead, I’d fix a mug of tea or crack open a beer, get comfortable on the sofa, and read. Then reread. Save the letter to look at later. Within a day or two I’d begin composing a reply.

Staying close is so much easier now. My son and I talk as often as we want for as long as we want—cell phone calls are cheap. The emails, texts, photos, or mini videos we send each other have so much more immediacy. There’s no need to compress all of our love, questions, answers, advice, and stories into 10 handwritten pages and wait 3-7 days for an answer. It’s quicker to call.

A friend’s letter to me

However, earlier this summer, I was nostalgic for the stories, drawings, and jokes shared in letters. I missed handwriting, which conveys so much personality and I missed the pleasure of selecting good paper.

Late winter cheer

I bought some stationery and stamps, but I discovered writing letters is different now. I no longer dash off a note as I used to. Now I slow down, think through what I want to say. Instead of just selecting and deleting a phrase, I have to scratch it out or start over if I want to reword it. Because they take more effort, letters seem more weighty, as if they should only be used for important messages. But I’m resisting that. I hope to recapture the lighthearted fun of writing a letter and hopefully share the surprise and delight of receiving a letter.

In time, my son will have a stack of letters (albeit a smaller one). They’re visible proof of our love and connection, unlike calls, texts, and emails, which usually exist in the moment and then disappear into the ether.

And really, staying connected is the point.


12 thoughts on “Taking Pen in Hand

  1. Just seeing your photos of letters sent and received brought back so many memories of my own letters/cards…both those I have sent as well as those I have saved, some since college. Keep thinking I should toss them…or at least purge some…but continue to hang on to them. Your post made me glad I have.

  2. How I loved writing and receiving long, newsy letters! My mother saved every one I sent home, and I found them tied together after she died. Some from Ft. Lauderdale, where I fled at 19, were embarrassing to re-read, but later ones revealed a lot about who I was becoming. Thanks for this important post!

    • Aren’t the saved letters a treasure?! One of my favorites was from you—sent to me after I moved to Missouri (a.k.a. Misery). It includes a hilarious semi-rant about a young asst. prof who was still wearing flip flops in November in Morris (and not because of a pedicure)! And I definitely see my current self in the younger self captured in letters.

  3. I used to love writing and receiving handwritten letters (or typed letters from my Dad). I used to write 20 page letters to my closest friends. I miss writing and receiving such letters. How wonderful that you have kept so many!

    • Back then, my handwriting was better. I wish my Dad had typed—his handwriting took some deciphering! I know what you mean about long letters—the news and stories just flowed. The letters I received meant so much.

  4. Yes, I think the nice thing about letters is that you can save them for years. And it does tell our personal history. I love how technology allows us to communicate so much more freely, but there is something about the permanence of letters that I also love!

    • Yes, I like having both forms of communication. A phone call is wonderful for immediacy and there’s less chance your words will be misunderstood — you can immediately clarify and answer questions. But letters are wonderful at preserving a moment in time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. How lovely to remember those days. Like you, I refrained from opening my letters until I had time to read slowly and savor the words of dear friends I seldom saw. I kept several of those letters, and I have learned in recent years that some of mine were kept, too. We poured our hearts out. Ten pages, twelve. To this day I believe that the act of writing — I, too, demand a good pen and ink-welcoming paper — is therapeutic in and of itself. And writing to a friend was much less daunting than penning an essay or short story, though the sentiments contained therein might be identical.

  6. It seems like another world, doesn’t it? We forget what it was like, the long waiting between letters. Phone calls were out of the question! The excitement when we received a letter was a wonderful gift.
    It’s nice that you are corresponding with your son. Sadly, my sons tell me that they can’t read my handwriting. Cursive is a foreign language to them, alas!

    • Funny about handwriting. Mine isn’t very good any more, but I think Mike will be able to figure it out . . . just like I deciphered my father’s, who had really awful handwriting.

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