Since my grandfather’s recent passing, my family has been tasked with the inevitable step of sifting through his things. Years ago, when my grandparents downsized to a condo, many of their furniture, decorations, and keepsakes were boxed up and placed into storage, or tucked away into unused corners or spaces. With my grandmother having passed away in 2013, all of the condo is now an unused space, and it’s time to open the boxes, the drawers, and the closets.
My grandfather, ever the sentimental type, saved everything. We’ve found car repair receipts from the 1980s, hotel bills from the 1970s, milestone recognitions like a newspaper clipping of when my grandfather opened his private practice for general surgery, and stacks and stacks of pictures of my mother, who is now 64, when she was young.
One of the items, a gold gift box that looked straight out of the Tiffany store in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, contained items from when my grandfather served as a medical doctor in the Korean War.
Draped over his folded, manila brown uniform jacket, was a handwritten letter that had been folded in half twice. My grandmother’s distinct script covered nearly every inch of that letter, so much so that it took me a few minutes to find the “Dear Joe” that began the letter.
Life in 1952
This letter, dated 1952, was sent to my grandfather while he was stationed at the U.S. Army Base in Seoul. My grandmother, who was pregnant with my mother at the time, wrote as much as she could on that piece of loose-leaf, because the cost to mail a letter to Korea was expensive.
She wrote of her nightly tradition of having tea with her mother in the evenings, of how much her friends liked the bright pink silk pajamas my grandfather had sent her, and of how she was counting down the seasons until he was home.
For me, reading this letter offered the impossible experience of knowing my grandparents when they were young. From my grandmother’s words, it was clear how much she missed my grandfather when he was stationed in Korea. In reading her words, I could experience firsthand, at a time before my mother was born, and two generations before I was born, how much they loved each other.
Digital, Fast, and Undocumented
As the digital age has brought many new forms of communication, email and text messages have become more common than the standard written letter. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I wrote someone a letter. Part of the reason is convenience, because news travels fast, and to mail someone a letter with news today would make it “old news,” once it arrives a few days later. And part of the reason is that mailing someone a letter truncates the rapid pace conversation that email and text messages allow us to have. We can send an email and receive a response within minutes. If we were to rely on a letter, the conversation could last for weeks!
Though I’m dependent upon being able to communicate almost instantaneously with my family and friends, I worry that that communication isn’t being documented for future generations the way that my grandmother’s letter was. Unless we’re saving email chains, and taking screenshots of text messages, there will not be a record of the conversation.
Not all conversations need to be, or should be, documented. But if we could each write a few letters to our loved ones that don’t contain time-sensitive updates, but simple say “hello,” and if we can save those letters we’ve received, we’ll be offering future generations a unique step into the past.
So, in the spirit of my grandparents, I encourage you to write, and mail, a handwritten letter.