They have the power to tell love stories, fuse friendships and end wars. They can convey profound thanks, apology or heartrending regret. They can alter history. Words written on paper by a human hand---letters.
In 1860, eleven-year-old Grace Bedell from Westfield, N.Y., perused pictures of Abraham Lincoln, presidential candidate. The girl decided that Lincoln’s extremely thin face would look much better covered with whiskers. She wrote and told him so, adding that “all the ladies like whiskers and would tease their husbands to vote for you, and then you would be President.” Lincoln wrote back to the girl, questioning the wisdom of growing whiskers, having never worn any. Shortly after their exchange, he allowed his beard to grow. He won the election and began his inaugural journey with a full beard.
When families rode west in covered wagons, letters served as their only connection with the loved ones they left behind. Those journals provided permanent historical records as well as emotional ties to the person who wrote them. Knowing they may never see their parents, grandparents or siblings again, the words scribed on precious paper were a godsend in desolate times.
Not so many years ago, handwritten letters were still the main means of staying in contact with family or friends. There were phone calls, but whether thirty or three thousand miles away, you paid the long distance rate, and those minutes added up.
Young and old wrote letters from which relationships grew. Many marriages followed a stream of love letters.
Words on paper, specially composed for a loved one, staved off loneliness in trying times. A letter from home gave a young soldier the strength to carry on. Parents wrote to children who left home and were out on their own for the first time. Children wrote to parents, and the distance did not seem so great.
When we grew up on our South Dakota farm, the mailman drove up next to our mailbox at ten o’clock every day but Sunday. In the summer we heard the click of the metal door closing and the gravel crunching as his car drove on. Someone hurried to the mailbox, and everyone in the house searched expectantly through the stack of mail. A personal letter generated excitement, whether it was from an aunt in Minnesota or a cousin in Sweden. Every one of us reveled in the words, which were the topic of discussion at that night’s supper table.
I was five when my oldest sister Deloris went to business school. I missed her, and I know our mother really missed her. Every week, Mom sat down at the kitchen table and penned a letter to Deloris. I sat next to her, drew a picture and scribbled a few words on paper which she carefully folded and tucked into the envelope. She licked a five-cent stamp and affixed it to the letter. I ran it out to the mailbox and pushed up the “flag” so the mailman would know there was something waiting for him. Then, I couldn’t wait to get a letter back.
Dorothy remembers heading off to Bible Camp, her first overnight week away from home. Mom must have figured her daughter might get homesick, so she wrote letters. I wrote one too and signed it with my first cursive writing, “Love, Your Sister, DeAnn Wolkow.” Dorothy still has the letter.
Years later when I went off to college, every day I peered into my tiny dorm mailbox, praying I would see a white envelope addressed by a loved one. Mom and my sisters often came through, and nieces added more cherished missives.
Throughout history letters have impacted lives. It’s not just the words that give letters their power; it is the emotional connections. As we read the undeletable communiques written just for us, we picture the person. The words and stories come to life.
Songs on the radio testified to the emotional impact of letters. “Love Letters in the Sand,” “All My Loving” and “Please, Mr. Postman” were just a few sung by Pat Boone, the Beatles and the Carpenters.
Today, smart phones and computers allow us faster options for sending messages. A few seconds and the touch of a button, and a note travels instantly across the miles.
Is old-fashioned letter writing becoming a lost art, obsolete in busy lives filled with new technology? That depends on us. We can put on the Big Boots and keep this art and skill alive. It takes only a sheet of paper, a pen and a stamp. Our words may not alter history or affect elections, but they might stave off loneliness. They might impact a life. They might be a godsend in desolate times.
Kruempel’s newest release, Once Upon a Midwest Sunset, is now available on Amazon.com. The book is a compilation of the stories from her NOOKS AND CRANNIES column, which was published in five newspapers in 2020-21. Promises to Keep, the author’s first book series is also available on Amazon. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and receive free weekly stories, recipes, photos and updates.