I caught the tail end of a story on NPR about an old Story Corps interview between a married couple, reflecting on their life together. I gathered the man had written a letter to his wife every day and was now reaching the end of his life, whether from old age, illness, or both, I do not know. That interview had aired on the radio the day he died seven years ago.
The story I was listening to was in response to numerous letters Story Corps had received asking how the woman was doing now, so they got in touch with her. What struck me, beyond the obvious love and affection between them and her response to his death, was her statement that she had received over 1400 letters of condolence. She had even received letters from China and France! And since her husband had written her a letter a day, she chose to read those letters one a day. That means those (mostly) anonymous well-wishers supported her for nearly four years.
I was impressed. What had inspired those people to take time to write to this woman they did not know? I can’t even find the discipline to write Thank You letters to people who have given me something or done something kind for me. And what a difference those letters made! Tears came to my eyes as I pondered it.
And then I thought of Jane. While cleaning her room a couple of months ago, she came across a card from one of my grandmothers. In it, Grandma had requested, as she always does, that Jane write to her. Now, this woman is very reliable with important events. She will never forget your birthday or anniversary and she will always send you a card. It is a priority for her and she expects the same from others.
And she is almost always disappointed. She has typically been a very unhappy woman. She has not been satisfied with the amount of contact she has with her family, both those of us far away and those living close to home. A phone call would typically involve complaints about how you don’t call more often and no one else talks to her either. Being reflexively resistant to guilt trips, this made me less interested in calling her. Writing seemed out of the question. Who has time for that? I wrote once, and that letter was typed, so that I could communicate more information more quickly.
So if I had seen the card that Jane found, I would have rolled my eyes and moved on. But that’s not what Jane did. She pulled out a pen and paper. I didn’t know what she was doing that day. I just saw that she was spending a tremendous amount of time curled up in the recliner writing. I assumed she was writing a story.
But then she asked me a question and when I prodded her on why she was asking, she told me she was writing to her great grandmother. I think the letter ended up being two sheets of paper, front and back. I called my mom for the address and we actually got it in the mail.
A response letter arrived about a week later. Jane smiled and laughed as she read it. And then she pulled out another piece of paper and began to write again. It probably took her a week or longer to get it finished and in the mail, but she did.
I learned from my mom that Grandma recently started taking a medication that appears to have improved her mood. She was so excited to get the letter from Jane. She expressed her hope that Jane would write back. My mom hesitated. She knows how impulsive teenagers can be. What are the odds of Jane continuing a pen pal relationship with her great grandmother? She cautioned Grandma about how busy we are and how kids really don’t write anymore. “I know,” Grandma said, “they text now.”
But Jane did write back. And if there is one thing I can depend on, it’s that Grandma will write back too. The article on the radio today made me see just how important it is. And not just for older people who remember letter writing as a primary form of communication. Young people enjoy getting mail too. I think she’s hooked. And I’m glad she’s forging this relationship with her great grandmother. And I think she just might be having an effect on me. Maybe I could take the time to write a hand-written letter to Grandma too.