My Aunt Barbara turned 85 the other day.
I mention this not because she’s one of those people who redefines for us what 85 is supposed to look, sound and behave like. And not because I hope that I’m as curious about life, as ready for an adventure, and as thrilled to meet and talk to new people when I reach that point in life.
No, I note her birthday because she’s the last great letter writer I know.
Now, you need to understand this about Aunt Barbara: She writes family, friends and associates, on holidays and milestones and beautiful days in autumn and when she has news and because she was thinking about you today and sometimes just for the plain heck of it.
And she writes inscrutably, despite having been raised in an age when handwriting was an essential part of the school curriculum (kids ask your grandparents). And you feel good when you finish one of her letters, because advanced degrees in hieroglyphics and code-breaking are required to decipher the intricate medley of loops, curves and dots. My wife and I have obtained those diplomas after years of study, and we’re quite proud of that.
And it’s also true that if not for her letters, the mail would consist of little more than bills, advertising of all sorts, and at this time of year, political fliers, or as I like to put it: pay-ups, come-ons and turnoffs.
But what Aunt Barbara’s letters really mean is this: As you hold them in your hands and make your way through them, you realize that for all the time it took her to set her pen to paper and compose those precious lines, she was thinking about you. Nothing or no one else. Just you. And she probably was stopping along the way to think about what she wanted to tell you, and to figure out how to string it all together and make it come out right.
I don’t know that I can say that about the emails, texts, tweets and posts so many of us use to communicate these days.
I’m not standing athwart history yelling, Stop! Technology doesn’t work that way, I get it. We can’t stuff it back in the corner mailbox. Nor should we.
But there’s an intimacy and an emotional connection you miss when you replace a letter with an email dashed off in a blaze of multi-tasking glory.
I also get that I’m part of the problem. When I want to reach out to Aunt Barbara in Connecticut, I pick up the phone. It isn’t a time issue; we talk for 90 minutes at a clip. I just like to hear her voice, the emotion, the joy and the frustration, her laugh, her sigh, and gauge where she’s at in real time.
But there’s no trace left from a call, except in our minds.
Think about how much of our historical record comes from letters written by statesmen and soldiers, lords and ladies, and regular people. And how much we have learned about writers and artists from their letters to loved ones and to each other. As momentous as his actions and speeches were, would Abraham Lincoln’s portrait be complete without the letters that sketch his humanity?
Think about your own treasured heirlooms. The rare figurine has great monetary value, but for emotional and psychological pleasure I’m guessing it’s hard to top the clutch of love notes between your great-grandparents or the letters from a relative sent off to war.
Many of us deep down do understand the problem. That’s why we add a sentence, or perhaps two, to the card we send on a birthday, anniversary or death. Because we want to add a personal touch, a bit of intimacy. But that’s all it is.
So consider this a letter to you, Aunt Barbara. And I apologize, I typed it. My handwriting is lousy. But it took me a few hours to write it.
And I was thinking about you.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.