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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014

Bearden: Past lost with decline in letter writing

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It was always the best birthday present of all.

Every year, no matter where I lived, my dad would call on the morning of Oct. 2 and recount the details of my birth at a Fort Knox, Ky., hospital. He always seemed to delight in reliving that experience, and I loved hearing about it.

Then he died suddenly three years ago, and there were no more birthday calls.

I began to forget parts of the story. And I couldn’t check with my mom, because she had died, too. Why hadn’t I taken notes or recorded him? Why did I think he would always be around to recollect my entry into the world?

Then I found The Letter.

After my dad passed away, my sisters and I made an incredible discovery. A salesman who was meticulous about keeping records, Dad kept files on all four of us in one of his cabinets. Each was filled with letters, greeting cards, photos, school report cards and, in my case, programs from plays I had appeared in and copies of newspaper articles I had written years ago.

At first I couldn’t open it. Too emotional. Finally, I got the courage last month.

And there, among the first letters I took out, handwritten in October 1984 in my father’s distinctive cursive, was an account of my birth with all those details

It was a sweltering night, and Dad and Mom, just 20 and 19, found relief in an air-conditioned movie theater on the Army base. Labor pains interrupted their last night as a carefree, childless couple and sent them rushing to the barracks hospital, where my dad joined several anxious fathers-to-be pacing the floors. Apparently, I was quite cooperative, arriving in just three hours, shortly after midnight.

“What an excited and proud father I was and still am,” he wrote.

What a treasure trove I found in that file! Our back-and-forth correspondence when I went off to college, then in cities in Michigan, Arizona and Florida as I pursued my career. He made copies of his own letters and kept my original writings as well.

As I read through the yellowed stationery, I was reminded of people, places and events in my life long forgotten. This was recorded history. Had it not been for these letters, I never would have remembered most of these little details and experiences. What may have appeared as mundane musings back then — Dad lamenting a close loss by his beloved Detroit Tigers or recalling an encounter with a former classmate of mine at the dry cleaners — brought back a flood of memories.

I cannot read them in one sitting. Each one transports me to another place and time, and I want to savor the experience in my mind. Many of the people we wrote about are long gone; with these accounts, they spring back to life. Most important, I can hear my dad’s voice in the words he wrote.

***

What has happened to sitting down and penning our thoughts? British author Simon Garfield explores that very topic in his thoroughly captivating book “To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing” (Gotham Books, $27.50), published in November. A “world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen,” he says. From Jane Austin to William Shakespeare to a World War II signalman writing home to his sweetheart, Garfield shows us the poetic nature of the written word.

It’s an overdue homage to something we once took for granted but really was an art. Letter-writing is a practice that has tracked the progress of civilization for more than 500 years.

In a phone interview, Garfield, 53, shared my nostalgia for what we once were and what we have become with regard to communicating with our fellow human beings.

“I’m not anti-technology. I text; I tweet,” he says. “Still, there is nothing like the long-form letter. We write in a different way, with a more emotional language and more depth.”

But with the younger generations, it’s all about speed and brevity. Even emails are becoming outdated. Digital communication is all about now, and keep it short, thank you. Write a letter, find a stamp, put it in a mailbox and wait days for a reply? You’ve got to be kidding.

“We lose an important way of cataloging our past,” Garfield says. “Emails, tweets, they’re here and they’re gone. Even if you make a printout, it’s just not the same.”

And you can’t put a value on how much a recipient appreciates a real letter, because it takes time and effort to put your thoughts on paper. There is a human element to this lost art. A tactile delight, Garfield calls it. I get exactly what he means. I hold every letter and card in my file with reverence and love.

***

My mother never let us play with our Christmas presents until we our wrote thank-you letters. To this day, if someone gives me a gift, I hear her voice in the background: “Send a note!” Sorry, an email just doesn’t cut it. It’s up to parents to teach this lesson, and sadly enough, it’s not happening these days.

The same thing holds for sympathy cards that come with personal messages. After a friend of mine lost his sister to cancer, he got condolences on Facebook and his email inbox at work. The personal touch just wasn’t there, not at one of the most difficult times in his life. This is what the letter provides above all else.

After my dad died, I had so many questions. I needed him to fill in the gaps in my life. He never forgot a name, a face or a detail; we used to call him a warehouse of useless information. Now I’m soaking up that information with such delight. Through his letters, I am putting together the pieces of a forgotten past.

One of those letters also settled a lingering doubt I’ve been harboring for some time. Was I a disappointment to him? Was he able to look past all my mistakes and failures? I found my answer at the end of that same letter from 1984, where he relived the night of my birth.

Michelle, we continue to be amazed at your tremendous creativity and your zest for life. God knows we have had our differences, but something must have been done right. You have turned out to be a great daughter and outstanding friend.

Thanks, Dad, for taking the time to write me. Your words and thoughts are right here, close to my heart. And so are you.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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