childhood, Uncategorized

The Letters

Recently I came upon some letters while looking for the right sized box to mail a package to my son at college in. The letters were not written to me, most of them were addressed to my mother. Quite a few of them were “Aerogrammes” received from Ireland in the early ’70s after my grandparents had suddenly passed away within hours of each other. There are also some from South Africa where her cousin has lived for most of his life. I must have tucked it in the basement cabinet after my mother died, with the intention of looking at them “some day”. My mother passed when my eldest was in her first week of middle-school and my senior in college was still an elementary student. “Some day” ended up being last week.

The box not only contained letters to my mother from friends, there was a copy of my father’s autopsy and a thank you letter regarding him being an organ and tissue donor. There was a letter on camp Ihduhapi letterhead postmarked from the summer of ’43 that my father had written to his parents. A letter that pretty much was a template for “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh. Here I am at Camp Granada.”  a song that was not released until twenty years later. There was a very formal letter from my grandfather, clearly in grief over the death of his own father that thanked my mother for her kind words to him in a previous letter. There was also a telegram telling her that her grandmother had passed and instructing her to share the news with family. I discovered a war bond book with carefully placed stamps from my mother’s youth.

The biggest gem in the box was physically the smallest. A tiny leather bound journal, a calendar from 1924, with space for a couple of lines to be recorded each day. A Belfast Ireland address is in the front cover, and also a Minneapolis address. I passed the treasure along to my daughter, who intends to write out the contents of it. It appears to chronicle the year my Grandfather immigrated, with details of dancing and “police raids” and a notation that reads “lost this book for a while – Found on road”. My grandfather lived in over thirty homes in his less than 70-year lifespan. How this small book survived the multiple moves around the US and back and forth across the ocean is somewhat miraculous.

Taking the time to look at these items caused me to do some reflection. How will a great grand-child “know” their deceased family members from this era some day, down the road? So little it actually recorded in a manner that will be preserved. Social media has taken on the role of a journal to document the highlights of life and Tweets, posts, text messages and rare emails are the efficient method of sharing our thoughts with others.

I feel like there is something different and introspective that occurs when a person takes the time to write a letter or compose a journal entry. There is a sense of permanence and thoughtfulness that is used when choosing the words or attempting to convey a sentiment. A person is required to stop, think and actually feel the emotions that a situation, event or person evokes in them. Without that catalyst, are people unintentionally less thoughtful as the result of those muscles not being flexed?

In my garage is a box that contains correspondence from friends and letters written on graph paper by my brother, that closed with stick figure drawings and “fill in the blank” lines for me to solve with a phrase reminiscent of our childhood. There are also letters from my husband chronicling our seven-month courtship. Reading them takes me back to that time where it seemed positively illogical that we get married but also captured the struggle it was for us to be apart. Receiving mail once meant more than bills and advertisements and the occasional greeting card.

I’m thankful for this box of insights from the past and I also appreciate that my children learned to read and write cursive. If the letters I have written and received last another generation or two, I wonder if they will simply look like scraps of paper with scribbles on them or if anyone will be able to decipher the messages we had taken the time to share.


Write On

Write on

It seems that we are at a turning point in communications in the United States that requires attention. I’m really unsure how it came to be that schools quit teaching cursive writing or made it a low priority but this trend needs an immediate reversal. I’m not simply waxing nostalgia for simpler days, I am genuinely concerned over creating a greater divide between the classes in our nation.

While my own children were taught cursive in school, they would be the first to admit that it is not their first method of communication and that their own penmanship lacks the consistency in flow compared to that of previous generations. That being said, they are able to decipher the written word. Only a few years younger than my own kids, a teenage nephew relies upon his brother to translate the messages in cards from their grandmother.

I’ve heard some defend the change by simply saying “there isn’t enough time for it” which I view as a cop-out. There was time for it in the days when gathering information for a report required going to the library and using a card catalog to locate sources and then digging into books to glean the information before either writing or typing the assignment. There were no Post-it notes to mark your places and no spell check to ensure accuracy, that required further research in another large book.  All of that took time and most of it is no longer necessary with information access a few clicks away via computer. There was time for it when someone had to go to the well before school began so there was water in the classroom and assignments were done by candlelight at home after chores were completed. It’s simply about making it a priority and not giving into whining if it doesn’t come easy. Make time for it.

I recall standing at the chalkboard and practicing letters awkwardly while classmates like Susan and Sabrina seemed to have a natural ability to make the identical shape over and over with little effort. I remember the manila paper with solid blue lines that had a dotted line midway between as sort of a visual set of training wheels serving as a guide. Before the days of participation medals there was penmanship and it was pretty clear who the winners and losers were. Not being good at it was not a reason to quit, it served as motivation to practice more. Cursive writing is a discipline and schools need more of it, not less.

Handwriting is an even playing field for those who are not musically inclined or athletically gifted. It is an equal-opportunity activity requiring no expensive equipment. To take it out of the classroom will mean that sooner than later some parents will make it a priority and have their children take lessens in it. Depending on an area of study, it seems likely that colleges will offer it, so students can access manuscripts and understand other documents. It strikes me as ludicrous to pay college tuition for this basic knowledge and it also is the sort of information that is much more easily grasped when a person is younger. Why would we deny youth such an accessible tool and potentially have it become yet another divisive symbol of rich/poor and have/have-nots?

The activity itself is scientifically recognized to increase brain activity and develops fine motor skills. Failure to provide this stimulation altars the way the brain functions. Neuroscientists recognize that the relationship between the hand and the brain is different when writing a letter than when simply selecting one from a keyboard. There is value in the creativity and communication form and recent tests have shown a person is able to generate more ideas when physically writing as opposed to keyboarding answers to the same questions. To ignore this we are actively allowing the decline of idea generation to our youth.

It seems obvious that an adult needs a signature to enter into a legally binding contract. How does one develop a signature without the skill of cursive writing? Signatures were once like snowflakes, or a visual form of DNA, something unique to the owner. My best friend and one of my sister in-laws share a similar chubby and cheerful penmanship. My mother had a formal and very elegant handwriting. Other than the last name being the same, my brothers signatures share little resemblance. The long line off the end of my E in Rose was intended to mimic the way my father signed his name. It seems odd that our youth might one day look at the Declaration of Independence and utter “That looks fancy.” but have no capacity to grasp that the words which drew their attention formed the name John Hancock. I think that would be a shame.

While it’s hard to ignore the importance of being able to read as a means of understanding historical documents for academic purposes, there is also value in being able to read cursive writing for other reasons. Those wishing to have insights to their ancestors can access a great deal of information through review of census data, much of which is handwritten. Closer to home are family bibles (often documenting births, marriages, deaths and other details), baby books, notations in photo albums and correspondence are all interesting, important but unfortunately lost without someone able to read them. I recently shared with my daughter some postcards my great-grandfather had sent to his children in the early 1900s and autograph books with messages from the children’s classmates, some in cursive by those as young as five. My mother was a letter writer and saver, somewhere among my things are all of the letters which I sent from summer camp and during my college years. It would be a shame if my future grandchildren would be unable to read them some day or need to go to a translator to have them transcribed. Failure to teach cursive and provide what should be considered a basic skill is cutting off easy historical access for future generations.

In an era when technology has permitted greater access to information and broader communication to many, it seems short-sighted to look at cursive writing as some outdated or unnecessary form of communicating. It’s affordable and with nothing but benefits to those who are able to produce it and understand it, it should remain accessible!