A Legacy of Letters

My mother passed away on April 4th.   It was a sacred honor to share her last moments with her.

I had no way of knowing that when I wrote the post a month ago about sending condolence cards that I would be on the receiving end again so soon. Yet there they are, coming in many ways in recent days–on my desk when I returned to work, in the mail, and hand delivered with food or flowers.  And each message has been a sweet gift of memory, comfort or support.

This weekend, as we went through my mother’s belongings, we found anniversary cards from my father, birthday wishes from my grandmother, and encouraging notes from her best friend.  A life’s big and small moments recounted in these cards, leaving sweet traces of the loving circle of family and friends with whom she shared her life.  I enjoyed finding the many cards and notes I sent her, kept with the rest.

And I found cards that she had filled out and not yet sent.  So I forwarded those on to their intended recipients, hoping to close the circle and bring a smile to their faces, knowing that she thought of them fondly, too.

a tree I drew in my work journal

A family’s legacy

In the mix, I found a journal I gave my mother twenty years ago.  I had encouraged her to write down her thoughts, stories and family lore.  This one, like others I had given her, was largely blank save the first four pages.  But those pages are more precious to us than gold.  In them, she shared loving thoughts of her daughters, a memory of her father, a quote from my father, and the story–that none of us knew–of how she got her nickname,  Teenie.

These pages served as a reminder that when people die, they often take their stories with them.  And when our parents pass, they take many of our own stories with them, too.  I would hear my parents’ stories so often, it seemed I could never forget them.  Panic set in once mom was gone, because the stories seemed to evaporate, too.  I seem only to have wispy fragments. I wish I had more of them written in her hand.

But these few must somehow be enough.

This weekend’s explorations of my mother’s legacy–and the letters and cards she received and the notes she left–reaffirmed for me the power and purpose of connecting through the written word.  Go write down your stories in your hand.  Send a letter.  Share your love and thoughts and encouragement with others.  These become part of your legacy and theirs.

Do it now. There is no time to waste.




Father’s Day–the Big Reveal

In my Father’s Day post, I promised to reveal the card I made for my Dad this year, but not until after he received it.  He read it and loved it, so now I can share.

It had a secret snail mail theme.  Here’s the front.

On the inside, it revealed the snail mail connection.  The photo on the front is from a post card my Dad mailed me from Alaska in 1978 when I was not yet two years old.  He was in the Navy and he sent my Mom a postcard and also sent a special one just for me!

I found the post cards when I was going through some old cards and letters.  I knew it would make a perfect Father’s Day card for my Dad, with the “big deer” creating the perfect outdoorsy theme for him.

So glad he loved it!

Happy Father’s Day!

Despite my love of snail mail, my passion for making cards, my extensive supply of postage, and my easy access to a mailbox, I failed to send my father his Father’s Day card on time.  I have no idea what happened, but suddenly the day was upon me and I hadn’t mailed it.  Ack!

A phone call was made to tell him I love him and wish him well, but I feel so bad that I, a self-proclaimed saver of snail mail, failed to get a card to him on time.

So, Dad, I hope you smile a bit when you read this blog post made especially for you.  Your card is on its way tomorrow.  It is homemade.  And it has a snail mail theme.  I’ll share the story behind it with others here on Save Snail Mail later.  But I didn’t want to ruin the surprise for you, so I’ll wait until you enjoy it, first!

Happy Father’s Day to you.  And on behalf of all slacker kids, Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there!


Handwriting matters

The New York times had an article recently about the demise of cursive handwriting among the younger generation.  The article focused on the practical implications for students unable to use cursive–like having a hard time reading materials in cursive (a grandmother’s journal, primary sources for history class) or not being able to write an essay in cursive for the SAT.  The article ends with a concern of one man for the loss of the artistic skill and pure aesthetics of cursive handwriting.

Edward Tenner at The Atlantic felt the NYT article didn’t make a strong enough argument for retaining and reviving cursive education in schools.  He goes even further, citing research that suggests that developing your handwriting (making a brain/hand connection) can have positive effects on language acquisition, reading fluency, and other areas of development. Tenner quotes Linda Spencer’s research summary here.  Spencer makes a point that, to me, is one of the biggest implications for snail mail and other handwritten arts:

Since cursive writing isn’t emphasized after third grade, few students are getting enough practice or reinforcement to make cursive automatic. In other words, when the student no longer needs to think about how to write but can focus on what they want to say in their writing, the skill becomes automatic.  How long this process takes may vary from child to child but it is certainly longer than the third grade.  When kids aren’t taught how to learn penmanship properly, they make it up, develop bad habits and handwriting never becomes fluid or routine.

If students, when they are hand writing materials, are focusing more on the mechanics of it, they lose the ability to get “lost” in the writing and just enjoy the creation of something new. I know letter writing isn’t popular among the vast majority of society these days, and is especially foreign to young people who have only lived in a world with email, but it saddens me that these young people may never fully experience the pleasures of journaling or writing ten-page letters to a friend. 

I know kids may be able to text at lightening speed, but somehow I doubt that texting skills translate into fine motor skills that can be used in drawing or painting or other creative forms of expression.  One press of a button makes an “h” another press of an exactly same type of button forms a “q.” 

I’ll be interested in seeing what the research ends up confirming, but it seems no coincidence to me that creativity has dramatically decreased among children in the last two decades as schools have focused less on hands-on activities like handwriting or arts or music and focused more on filling in bubbles and drilling math facts AND as children spend more time inside, passively absorbing information beamed at them from a screen (or interacting only through their thumbs).

The loss of handwriting, and arts and crafts, and outside play will have real effects on our children.  I blog, I use email, I love watching movies and playing guitar hero.  I’m not against any of these technologies per se.  But I grew up in the country, I camped, gardened, invented imaginary scenarios with my sister and acted them out, rode horses, stared at shapes in the clouds, wrote letters, painted, and picked wildflower bouquets.  These things shaped my brain in ways that allow me to be both analytical and creative.  So I can make the best use of all parts of my brain and spirit. 

I know that there’s still a place in this world for the handmade arts–and others have begun to revive traditional arts, crafts, and skills–from knitting to canning food to letter press to calligraphy.  I hope to be a part of a movement that preserves these skills, introduces young people to their joys and helps build a more creative generation as a result. 

Is that too melodramatic for a Thursday?

My birthright

Folks have often wondered where I got the letter writing “bug.”  All I can say is, “It was in my blood.”

To set the stage, I was born at a time when long-distance phone calls were still expensive (long before those call-all-you-want-for-one-fixed-price plans).  So, letters were the best way for kids without jobs to keep in touch.  In the days before the internet, we shared pictures, jokes, clippings, and other ephemera with our friends and family via the mail. This was the era before spam email when people had to photocopy copies (of copies) of chain letters, recipes, political rants, and racy jokes to share them with one another. It was more work than today’s email versions, but we did it anyway!

And I lived in the country, with few neighbors and practically no other kids to play with. In this context, letters from elsewhere took on a bit of a magical quality.  They were contact from “out there in the real world.”

Given all this, I was fertile ground for the seed of letter writing and this seed was planted at an early age by both of my grandmothers.

My dad’s mom always wanted to own a card and stationery shop (an unfulfilled dream she must have bequeathed to me) and was an avid letter writer.  She would write back, a very reinforcing gift to a budding letter writer!

But it was my mom’s mom who really fostered my love of sending and receiving letters and packages.  She worked at the post office, so she would send little notes with regularity.  She was also renowned for her care packages full of random fun.  I vividly recall a St. Patrick’s day themed package that came with a headband sporting glittered, bobbling shamrocks, a box of green Jell-O, lots of candy, and oddly enough, pairs of green underwear.  Anything green made the cut! As a young adult, I began to carry on this tradition, sending similar themed packages to folks for birthdays or just to cheer them up.  I knew the power such packages had! 

My mom’s mom also introduced me to stamp collecting. I haven’t talked about that much on here yet, but will share some of my favorites from my collection on future posts. I remember seeing the first-day-issue cancellations my grandmother collected for my grandfather and thinking how special they seemed–printed with his name, mounted on a card explaining the stamp’s history and meaning, and then carefully placed inside a plastic protective covering and kept in a binder for safe keeping. Stamp collecting involved history, art, organizing, and a flair of adventure. I was in love!

So, you see, I was just an innocent victim.  This outrageous love for pens, letters, packages, stamps, and all things snail mail that I harbor was foisted upon me.  Now that the world has moved on to faster forms of communications, I can’t abandon this birthright of mine.  It’s part of my family history and I plan on preserving this tradition as long as I can. And I’m busy inculcating a younger generation just as my grandmothers did. 

That’s what you’re supposed to do with traditions.

Spring is almost here

Here in the southern U.S., spring comes early.  My first daffodil of the season showed its face on February 20th!  And my dogwoods look like they’re actually going to bloom this year.  I am thrilled!

When spring comes, I feel lighter and happier. But outside activities can reduce the time I spend inside writing letters. So, to make sure I keep in touch with others, I’ll make some spring notes to send. I have all sorts of spring-themed rubber stamps; hopefully I can find time to use them.

I love spring notes. They’re always so cheerful after that last stretch of winter. Below is an Easter card from my grandmother. I received it when I was in first grade.

This card is evidence that I was a letter writer even then. See inside:

I noticed that when I go back through letters from my mom or grandmother, that they often write “Saturday morning” rather than the date.  Which is, of course, annoying if you’re trying to figure out when it arrived and no longer have the envelope.  I had to use my powers of deductive reasoning to date this one (first grade, Easter) to 1984.  For all you letter writers out there, put a date on your missives so when your recipients are enjoying them in years to come, they’re not wondering exactly which “Saturday morning” you’re referring to!

But I digress.

So, who can you send spring notes to? Break out some card stock and art supplies (crayons, colored pencils, and stickers will do!).  No need to get fancy to spread your springtime cheer!

Being thankful

I’m writing a thank you note to my neighbors who fed me a beautiful meal on Friday.  I just sent a thank you note to my aunt and uncle for hosting me last weekend in Maryland.  And I’m still working on a thank you to my friend who helped me set up this blog. 

Am I telling you this to make you feel bad about all the thank you notes you haven’t sent?  No. I’m writing about them to discuss one of the few remaining reasons most folks send any sort of snail mail these days.  For the big events–like weddings and baby showers–we know we’re supposed to mail handwritten notes for the gifts we receive.  Email or phone calls just won’t do.  So we write them.  I’ve heard folks talk about sending thank you notes as a chore they need to just get through, maybe with a little help from a bottle of wine.

I’d like to suggest that we all write thank you notes more often and use them as an opportunity to really be thankful.  When I write notes to my neighbors for a wonderful dinner, I’m thankful for their friendship, generosity and gifts in the kitchen.  When I thank my aunt and uncle for their hospitality, I’m thankful for having a family that actually enjoys having me around. 

It’s so easy for me to become grumpy about my pile of to-do’s, a pile that despite my best efforts always gets bigger.  It’s also easy to add writing and sending thank you notes to that list of chores. But, in recent years especially, I have tried to write thank you notes whenever I feel grateful for a gift, a friendship, a kindness.  It’s a bit like meditation.  The act of writing down my gratitude allows me to put aside other things for a moment, focus on a happy memory, and just be thankful.  It’s actually fun.

Not only do I enjoy it, but others enjoy it when their kindness results in a bit of fun in their mail box and concrete proof that their actions were truly appreciated.  Below is a thank you note I received in 1984.

It’s from a teacher who thanked me for giving her decorative soaps for Christmas.  I remember the beautiful soaps and I also remember that it was my mom who deserved the thanks for buying and wrapping them. So I didn’t even deserve the thank you note!

But I’ve kept the note for all these years, because it shows me how much being appreciated can mean to someone.  And I don’t mean me…

My sister found the note at some point and so wanted to be the recipient of that gratitude that she scratched out my name and penciled in her own.  Voila! Instant thank you note to Jessie.  This little note reminds me that everyone likes to feel appreciated.

In my quest to save snail mail, I’m sending a lot of thank you notes. It’s a quick and easy way to take stock of all I have to be thankful for and to let people know how much their thoughtfulness means to me. 

Do you have any thank you notes to write?

Egyptian pen pals

In high school, waaaaay back in the early 90s, I had Egyptian pen pals.  They were two guys named Sameh and Aiman, both college students.  Sameh was majoring in engineering and wanted to be a police officer.  Aiman was an English major and hoped to be an interpreter or guide.  I think we found each other as pen pals because we had a common love for collecting stamps (we were philatelists, if you want the official term).  Our letters largely revolved around exchanging stamps, stories about our families, and information about our countries and cultures. 

We wrote back and forth for a couple years.  Occasionally, Aiman would send me drawings.  I’m not so sure he wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, too.  His letters took a somewhat romantic turn:

I somehow skirted those overtures and eventually we fell out of touch after I went to college.  Given the unrest in Egypt lately, I was thinking about my old pen pals and wondering how they might be involved, hoping they are safe.

As I sat and pondered what their lives were like now, it was nice to have the pile of snail mail to sift back through to conjure memories.  What gifts letters can be so many years later. In the next couple of weeks I’m going to share more blasts from the past.

Birth of a crafter

When I was in second grade, my mom had a great idea: we would make homemade valentines for me to give out to everyone in my class. She broke out the construction paper, paper heart doilies, glue sticks, markers and the pinking shears from her sewing kit. I was THRILLED! I thought pinking shears were the coolest scissors I’d ever seen and I loved every minute of making those cards with my mom.

After a wonderful night of valentine design, I woke the next morning, packed my homemade stash in my backpack and headed to school. When it came time to pass out the valentines, my teacher instructed everyone to go from desk to desk and slip our valentines into the construction-paper envelopes taped to the front of each student’s desk.

I froze. Everyone else had bubble-gum colored, store-bought valentines. Garfield- , Strawberry Shortcake-, and Snoopy-adorned valentines flew from the hands of my classmates. The sick feeling in my stomach told me that I was giving out valentines that were ABNORMAL and people would laugh at me. No one else had made their own cards. I must have been a freak for doing so. I was mortified, silently cursing my mom for forcing me to make these awful things that would jettison me so far from the “socially acceptable” zone that I’d never make my way back before prom.

With nothing else to hand out, I quietly slid my devastatingly crafty creations into everyone’s valentine pockets and returned to my desk filled with dread. I awaited the social fallout.

Much to my surprise, my classmates ooohed and ahhhhed over my creations. Some came and thanked me personally, telling me my valentine was their favorite. I was elated. I silently apologized to and thanked my mom for helping me make the best valentines ever. Undoubtedly I puffed up a little bit with pride.

I realized a few lessons that day:

1. Being different isn’t always devastating.
2. People enjoy receiving a thoughtful, homemade card. It makes them feel special.
3. I have an irrepressible love of craft supplies and that’s OK, people will find a way to see beyond that and love me anyway.

More than I could have foreseen on that fateful day in second grade, these lessons have served me well. Developing a certain level of comfort with being different has allowed me to live a full, authentic life (perhaps much to the chagrin of my parents during my heavy metal, black finger nail polish, leather-clad teen years). And connecting with people through cards, especially ones I make with my own two hands, has been a gift. The thrill of creating them is wonderful; having someone else derive joy from them is icing on the cupcake.

In honor of that emotion-filled day back in the early 80s, what I see as my crafting birth, I am having a valentine-making party this weekend for a few friends. I can’t wait to share pictures here with you!