During my adult years I developed a letter-writing habit. Perhaps it was always there, instilled by people who could count on nothing so much as a letter. Phones were problematic. Nothing else existed for communication except telegrams–“someone better be dying or sending us money”–or an in-person visit. Obviously one didn’t jump in the car and drive 285 miles across the state just to discuss the weekly news, find out the latest on your cousin’s marriage, or to shoot the breeze. (I’ll admit that in college on several occasions I more or less did the latter: I would pick up and travel a couple hundred miles or so just to say “hi” to the family, and as a young man I would routinely drive dozens of miles on a whim late in the afternoon to catch a dinner in a nearby city or visit a girlfriend or somesuch.)
Ultimately no other communications medium served the role of the letter–certainly not telephones. During the first ten years of my life (into the early-1960s), my family paid only for party-line phone service. When you picked up the phone, if someone was talking, you just put the receiver back on the cradle of the desktop-model black telephone. In addition to scrimping on telephone charges by having a party line, my parents learned from their parents that one didn’t make long distance calls on whims, one didn’t linger on long distance calls when they were made, and one didn’t call collect except in the most dire of emergencies. Today’s ubiquitous carrying of a smartphone makes one instantly available. Today our calling plans include the costs of everything–long distance, calls between carrier systems, voice mail, the addition of extra lines, and the ability to download data to our handheld computers. It makes the concept of the desk-bound black telephone seem a relic from further back in the past than just 50 or 60 years.
Habitually writing a letter, though, became ingrained into me even as others my age leaned into the idea that long distance phone calls could be made more often. I’m sure the phone company (there was but one no matter where you lived) made it easier somehow, with a calling plan or discounts or something. My family wrote. It hadn’t been a long time since letters were the only form of communication other than telegrams (see above). My grandparents were born just as telephones were being introduced to the world. It took many years for telephone lines to be strung to all the corners of rural America. One wrote, and one wrote often. Young men with reputations to uphold stayed at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) where they were encouraged to “write your mother”. My parents undoubtedly had access to telephones in their homes–especially my mother since her father worked for the telephone company. Beyond the house, in the dormitories and fraternities/sororities of college, and perhaps even as new graduates, they didn’t have their own telephones. Letters sufficed.
I remember the letters from my father’s parents (mostly his mother) which arrived weekly. Grandma would type them on thin onion-skin paper so that she could put carbon paper between two pieces of paper and thereby make a copy as she typed. One would be sent to my father, her elder son, and one to my uncle, the younger son. To be fair, grandma would alternate pages of the carbon with originals because the carbon copy was fuzzier. A three or four page letter would alternate between black (original) and blue (copy) pages. That was a lot of news! Grandma believed in not wasting the paper. Margins were about 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch all the way around; the letters were single-spaced.
My mother’s parents were less frugal. My grandfather’s employment entitled them to lower-cost telephone service, and my grandmother was more likely to pick up the telephone to communicate, usually on a Saturday morning. I know this seems to negate what I wrote earlier, but this was an exception due to Grandpa’s privileged employment status. These calls were not frequent: no more than two per month. I believe my grandfather wrote his only daughter occasionally, putting pen to paper longhand like many people did, writing cursively.
My parents thus inculcated letter-writing into me, a habit which has not been broken these 50 years since I left home. Our communications became much more frequent and regular with the advent of email. For the last 15-20 years of their lives, my parents would email a letter to my brother and me, usually on a Saturday. My brother and I would each respond to that letter with our own, and the weekly news would be transmitted. In the two years since my mother died and left us to our own devices, my brother and I continue to send the weekly weekend emails, although we also use texting for shorter notes. It pains me to see this skill die out as younger people today disdain email entirely and communicate in other, more terse formats. After thousands of years the letter appears to be dying out as a common form of communication between friends and family members. This rewiring of our brain and of society does not bode well. Humans, never great at believing the best about strangers, have retreated into communication silos out of which we had only recently been attempting to break.
I doubt I will see the next evolution in communications between friends and family members unless someone comes up with a method to visit one another in person easily and on a whim, a la the transporter we see in our sci-fi stories. The face-to-face video calls (FaceTime, et al) would seem to bridge the gap between letters and that instantaneous travel. It will have to do. I don’t see the point: an emailed letter is more convenient because it doesn’t demand that I drop everything to answer it. The video call won’t permit me to derisively laugh at the foibles of others (without their knowledge), encourages me to make sure my bladder is empty, doesn’t let me study the words to make sure I understand what the sender wants me to understand, and gives me nothing to refer back to an hour later. On the other hand they permit the sharing of laughter, of music, of certain sights which might be within the range of the device. Ultimately, though, the video call remains a “call” and not a literary device–and for that reason I mourn its seeming demise.