The art of letter writing: lost for a reason?

When I was a kid, I used to have pen pals. Remember those? At the back of some comics, there used to be listings of kids all over Canada and the U.S. who would describe their interests and hobbies, and put their name and age and address. And you could write to them. The good old days. I had about 6 pen pals from all over, not because I especially like meeting new people (this guaranteed you didn’t have to), but because I liked getting mail.

I loved getting mail, actually. I signed up for everything and made my mother crazy. Collector postage stamps “on approval” (she put a fast stop to that), sea monkeys, x-ray glasses, greeting cards – anything. I wasn’t great at reading fine print, but I was fast with a pen and a stamp.

She did let me keep the pen pals, mostly because the letters consisted of things like what grade we were in, how many siblings we had and what we did for fun. I remember one kid told me his goal was to be a carnie. He wasn’t kidding. Mom said I couldn’t write to him anymore. I told her at least my letters were interesting; all she wrote home to England about was who had died, who was sick and what the weather was doing.

Letter writing is a lost art now. My handwriting isn’t legible, even to me. There’s also the upside of frequency. If I can email, you’ll hear from me more often, as well-intentioned thoughts on a rare piece of stationary awaiting a rarer -still stamp are unlikely to make it out the door.

It can be dangerous writing a letter to someone you haven’t seen or talked to recently. I realized this, as I fired up an email this morning to someone I’d been out of touch with for awhile.

“Maggie has been sick. 600 bucks at the vet; she stopped eating for 12 hours and got dehydrated. She looks so pathetic I hustled her in –she’s 13 but the only one around here who loves me, so I’m kinda partial to her. She has eye drops, ear drops, and antibiotics for an infection they couldn’t pinpoint. Got her home, got the rounds of meds into her (not happy, she gave me stinkeye twice a day and ran), but within a day she was eating like a trooper. So much for the edge of death.

“Huge thunderstorms here, lots of big branches down. Looks like a frat house on Sunday morning.

“We lost that neighbour who’s been sick for awhile now. It wasn’t a surprise, but it’s still a jolt. Thought you should know.

“I’ve been sick all week. I was supposed to go meet up with two friends in West Virginia last weekend, had a perfect car lined up, but I was too sick to go. Sinus and migraine. I never get sick. The doctor said it was viral and couldn’t give me antibiotics. I considered taking Maggie’s and she, of course, was all “hey, have at it”. It’s finally over, but it’s been a lousy summer on the health front. Both boys said “I thought you were going away”. I pointed out that I was lying near death. They both said “but you never get sick”. Then they asked what was for dinner, since I was home.

“So. All caught up. Bitching and complaining and bringing you news of illness and death. It’s like the Middle Ages, but with computers and antibiotics.”

I’ve become my mother.

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13 responses to The art of letter writing: lost for a reason?

  1. Kerry says:

    All I get in the mail is bills .
    My sister is the Queen of emails .

  2. Pat says:

    I still write letters. My nieces, in particular, love to get letters, even if they are nearly forty now. In person, I’m grumpy uncle Pat, but in letters I’m wise and thoughtful.
    Glad you and Maggie are feeling better.

  3. Beth says:

    My mother is the best letter writer that I know. After spending many years in Europe due to my father’s military career, she still keeps in touch with friends in numerous countries as we did not spend time on the Canadian bases in Germany but rather NATO postings which were multinational topped off with three years in England.

    It was a good thing for my mum that pretty much everyone spoke English as she just does not have a knack for languages. When we lived in Rome, our local grocery store was being remodelled and Mum was trying to find dog food for our Lab. As everything was in disarray, she wandered the aisles with no success. As the poor dog was completely out of food, there was not the option to leave it for another day. After trying to communicate with one of the young lads stocking the shelves, she was just about to give up trying to find the dog food. Finally she picked up a tin of peas, pointed at it and said “woof woof”. Our Lab was able to enjoy his dinner that night.

  4. Sandy says:

    My mother has beautiful handwriting. At the 50th anniversary party over the weekend, I had asked the guests to write a short note to my parents and we are putting together a scrapbook with the notes and pictures that people brought as well as from the party.
    There was one note that looked like my mother had written it herself. Turns out it was her best friend from school. They had to take penmanship back then and the two of them have almost identical handwriting. It is quite amazing.
    My kids are 13, 16 and 19. They signed a card and it looks like I have three toddlers just learning to print their names.

    • Beth says:


      Mine are 17 and 19. I would love to graduate to toddler style as their current style is like they signed with their feet.

  5. The Artful Dodger says:

    Keep sending those letters! Someone’s got to keep my Canada Post pension cheque coming in! Back when I delivered mail, we would get letters that said “any Grade 4 kid, Toronto Ontario”. If I delivered to a school then, I would take them with me and deliver them. Who knows if these penpals ever hooked up? Maybe as a hopeless romantic ( I know! Strange for a guy to say that!) I may have brought two people together for life.

    • Sandy says:

      I have to admit that I am a bit of a hoarder when it comes to cards and letters.
      I have letters that were written to me back when I was in university. They are so funny and such a great reminder of what was going on in my life back then.
      I still have my personal diaries from high school, oh the drama, and on occasion I will go back and read them for a laugh.
      I have kept some emails that were special to me but printing them to put in a book just isn’t the same as that handwritten note.

  6. Mitch says:

    Lorraine…..comic book ads, pen pals and sea monkeys they are all from the 1950’s. You are far too young to have experienced those!!

    PS we were all taught to print and then write, everyday in Grade one and two and beyond. First with pencil then ink with a straight pen and finally fountain pens….Marathon Ontario 1951-1957.

    • Beth says:

      Lorraine don’t worry. I am in my early 50’s and I remember all those things so Mitch must be suffering from sometimers:). Does anyone remember those ads about the skinny wimp at the beach who gets sand thrown in his face by the big strong guys while his girlfriend is looking on? He orders some crap from the comic and shows up in a later frame looking like Arnie and kicks ass. How warped was that?

  7. The Artful Dodger says:

    And who can forget the Pittsburgh Art Institute where if you could sketch the pirate, you had potential to be a great artist. Mail your sketch in and they would get back to you. It was more fun ordering the soldiers off the back page of the comics. Such disappointment when you got them in the mail. They were all like 2″ tall.

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