January 10, 2012
This blog post is cheating, a little, as the following essay aired today on Milwaukee Public Radio’s Lake Effect program: http://www.wuwm.com/programs/lake_effect/le_sgmt.php?segmentid=8631.
But for those of you who don’t stream radio or follow Facebook, I thought you might enjoy it. Besides, I’m getting double fun out of it.
The letter is dated June 13th, 1990. Dear Ellen, it begins. Here I sit in my trailer and hear the patter of rain on the roof and hear the clap of thunder. There is a tornado watch out for this area along with Wisconsin and Minnesota until 8:00 p.m. Western Time. It will be 9:00 o’clock by the time I am keeping, so that will be about another 4 hours and fifteen minutes from now. Until then I will keep my fingers crossed.
The letter is from my dad, who died in 1998. Just seeing his handwriting brings him back. There is his vulnerability, his passion, his overbearing love that I worked so hard to duck as a teenager. His script was back-slanted, round, and consistent. It’s the penmanship of a smart left-handed kid who dropped out of school in the eighth grade to go to work and went back to the ninth grade at age twenty six: after World War II, after he saw Tokyo flattened, after he got out of the army.
He wrote on lined paper, which he folded into thirds and tucked into a white envelope printed with black crosshatching on the inside. My mother surely packed the envelopes and paper for him before he set out on May 31st (there’s another, earlier letter), to be the campground host at Watersmeet Recreation Area, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. His health was quite bad by then, so this job was an undertaking, an unlikely adventure.
As I read, I’m stricken with missing him, with wistfulness about our tempestuous relationship, with delight at meeting up with him again this way. Also I feel almost ill with wondering if I wrote back.
By the time that you read this, you will have returned from New Mexico, he writes. I trust you had an acceptable time out there. Was it terribly hot? What is your—or I should say where is your— next trip? Other than up here of course.
I really hope I wrote back.
I have to think I did. Letters were a habit with me. They were how I kept in touch with people. Also how I knew my own thoughts: knew I’d been alive, noticed the weather, saw a house wren perched on the woodpile, ate lasagna for supper. I don’t write as many as I used to. Me and everyone else, I know.
You hear the dire pronouncements constantly: letter writing is a forgotten art, nobody does it anymore, they’re closing down branches of the Post Office and taking service from six days to five. Teachers won’t even teach cursive in school anymore. People won’t need to write. They already don’t. They type. They text. Everything’s virtual, the handwritten word is antiquated. This would mean no more penmanship charts up above the blackboard like a wallpaper border in the second grade classroom.
That distresses me. Letter-writing is important, I believe that. Handwriting is important. With a letter, you made this thing, and it’s an actual thing, an object. It’s an artifact. My hand touches the paper your hand touched. I unfold that piece of paper twenty, fifty, a hundred years later, and your thoughts and voice stride out. With a letter, I go to a quiet spot and read—really read, don’t skim. I pull the letter out and read it again later—sometimes much later. And letters are flexible. They don’t have to happen right now, all at once. They can marinate.
My dad stopped halfway through that letter he was writing on June 13th and went fishing. The storm had let up, the sun came out. When he picked up the pen again he was in a different mood. And in this other mood he sets my mind at ease.
Yes, I know what you are talking about when you speak of dreams, he writes (and I think with a wave of relief, So I did write back; this was a written conversation we were having). I have decided that once you don’t have silly dreams your life gets very dull. Take me up here camping. I could just see myself catching big fish, meeting a lot of people, and hiking, and all kind of things, but most of those things aren’t happening. But I am still enjoying being here, doing what it is possible for me to do. What I am trying to say is that dreams are the stuff of life. We must not let go of them.
Well, this is my dream: to spark an epidemic of handwritten letters flying through the mail. It might be wildly unrealistic; it might never happen. But according to my dad, you have to cherish such unlikely dreams.
So this is my letter to you. Please write back soon.