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.


Ode to Sweet Corn

Truck farmers slowly drove pickups through the neighborhood where I grew up, sing-songing, “Tomatoes, peaches, peppers, melons, sweet corn.” Neighborhood moms stepped to the curb in white sleeveless blouses and faded Bermuda shorts, handing over a few dollars from their change purses.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 7.59.52 PMBefore dinner, we kids ripped and shucked off the corn’s cool stiff leaves, crumbled dry brown corn silk from the top of the ears, and pulled clingy translucent green silk from the cobs. Then we snapped ears from the stalks and leaves. Sometimes milky juice popped from nearby kernels. In the already-hot kitchen, water rolled and boiled in a deep pot, adding steam, more heat, and the cabbage-y stink of boiling corn to the room.

At the table, we guided melting pats of butter with a knife across the bumpy kernels. Salted the ears. Bit into crispy yellow and white sweetness. Kernels crammed in my teeth but I didn’t stop. I just kept going around and around till the cob was bare.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, in the midst of Jeep, spark plug and glass factories, sweet corn was simple and wholesome, something we Midwesterners took pride in. There was so much sweet corn that we could eat it every day for six weeks if we wanted. Then it was done. The truck farmers disappeared. We never froze it or canned sweet corn. For my family, sweet corn was a summer-only feast.