Last lines

As the longtime practice of writing personal letters by hand to family and friends is quickly becoming a thing of the past in the age of cellphones, text messaging, and e-mails, Globe writer Milton J. Valencia sat down and penned his own letter to the lost art.

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / September 20, 2009

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Dearly beloved,

Please say it's not so.

Tell me that what the others say is not true, that you are not destined to succumb to technology, persisting only under glass in museum displays, an artifact of a time when people would take an extra moment to pen a personal hello or thanks or consolation or love.

Experts have already forecast your demise, estimating that an average of 102 e-mails will be sent and received by each of us, every day, by 2011. More than 100 billion text messages are sent by cellphones each month, according to an industry group. Good Lord, even party invitations and holiday cards, the last bastion of personal bulk mail, are now often sent online.

The US Postal Service is going broke without you, the cherished personal missive, reporting a drop of 10 billion letters overall in the last 20 years.

One consumer research agency even put you at number nine on its list of the Top 25 Things Vanishing in America, leading one of your supporters to ask this on a website, “Does anyone send handwritten letters anymore?’’

Sure they do.

You survive, even thrive, in some elementary schools, where grade-schoolers exchange pleasantries with strangers in Pen Pal projects, the greatest social studies curriculum ever developed.

Summer campers still know your ability to put smiles on the faces of lonely adolescents, and see the quiet, unmistakable power of a patiently written message enclosed in an envelope with a stamp, a return address, and maybe a tear.

You brought good news, and ended relationships.

You kept loved ones close, and recorded final words.

You talked about love, hate, peace, and war.

You announced births, cried over deaths, smiled with a brother, and laughed with a sister.

And through it all, you never stopped coming back.

Over and over and over.

“To rip open an envelope from family members or friends, and knowing that they were taking the time to write to you was a very special feeling,’’ Eliza Beebe, an 11-year-old from Milton, wrote in a letter after spending a few weeks at summer camp in Maine. Her 9-year-old brother, Caleb, wrote, too, and he even marked his envelope with a seal, as was done in the age of kings and queens.

See, even a 9-year-old understands. Let’s try to convince the others.

Margaret Shepherd, an author on calligraphy and the intricacies of penmanship, who has written about the finest letters of history, likes to tell of “The Art of the Personal Letter.’’

“A hand-written letter has everything going for it,’’ she said in an interview. “It has the paper, it has the ink color, it has the handwriting of someone you know, so it has that extra identity.’’

She understands that most people will settle - as many already have - on e-mails and text messages as the primary source of communication; it’s the easy thing to do. But never will the intimacy of a handwritten letter be obsolete.

The comfort of the paper, the way the ink flows off a pen, the fact that the writer has taken the time to release his feelings, “There’s a way the reader interprets that ink, and the reader assigns more meaning to things,’’ Shepherd said. “The writer and the reader each have a different experience in this.’’

What e-mail could capture anything like the romantic correspondence between Founding Father John Adams and his wife, Abigail, at the height of the American Revolution? She once wrote to him, “To-morrow I return home, where I hope soon to receive the dearest of friends, and the tenderest of husbands, with that unabated affection which has for years past, and will whilst the vital spark lasts, burn in the bosom of your affection.’’


And it was the fine art of the personal letter than enabled Adams and President Thomas Jefferson to reconcile their deep differences in their dying days, each lying in peace on the Fourth of July, 1826.

Even today, presidents make some of their most important statements with the touch of ink: Remember President Obama’s historic letter to Vladimir Putin of Russia? It was handwritten, just like the one sent by Persian Queen Atossa around 500 B.C., believed to be the first of its kind, according to one website dedicated to your well-being,

And while communications now disappear with the tap of a delete button, many of yesterday’s letters still exist - yellowed, fraying pages stacked carefully in musty boxes like bricks in the wall of life.

The people at the Postal Service remember you and everything you represented: first of all, a workload - you now account for less than 5 percent of total bulk mail.

But you also brought about a sense of compassion and intimacy, an ability to show someone you cared.

Just ask Mike Sutherby, who has spent 32 years with the Postal Service - close to half that time as a window clerk at the McCormack Post Office in the Financial District - and who would see customers so determined to customize their letters that they would take close to a half-hour picking out a stamp.

One man - they used to call him “Tony from Charlestown’’ - would come in regularly with postcards he made and would send to friends.

“It was nice to see someone take their time, do this stuff,’’ said Sutherby, a 53-year-old father who recalls getting letters from his daughter at camp.

“E-mail’s too easy,’’ he said. “A letter, you have to put some effort into it, sit down, decide what you’re going to say, find an envelope, find a stamp. It’s personal.’’

They used to call you “Mom and Pop’’ mail, he said, because you were a great way for families to communicate.

And you still are.

Laura Beebe, the mother of Caleb and Eliza, said she could see the fun the two were having. Eliza would write longer, drawn-out letters detailing her days, like a diary. Caleb started to get the hang of it, after learning how to write an address and a return address on an envelope.

He still enjoys it, and recently wrote to the Globe. So did Eliza.

But watch out: She just got her first e-mail account.

With sincerity,

Milton J. Valencia