The Detective’s Daughter: The Lost Art of Letters

Kim'spolicehatNot long before Dad’s house burned down, he gave me the family photos. There were boxes upon damaged boxes of photographs, letters, postcards and telegrams dating back to the early 1860’s. They had sat in the dampness of the basement pushed behind trunks of dishes and forgotten housewares on the bank under the house.

I will admit that I was snooping. For the last year or so I had been keeping an extra eye on him since his illness. I’d show up every few days to clean or make him a meal and to toss out the tower of pizza boxes that accumulated no matter how often I’d visit. He never let me take anything home and always insisted he was just about to use whatever I wanted to throw out or donate. When he gave me the mangled boxes to take home, I was surprised.

“You like all that stuff,” he said and helped me drag them to my car. I can spend hours, days sometimes, sorting through the photos and trying to figure out who is who. My favorite things, though, are the letters. I still write letters, but I must admit, they are usually sent as an email. When did letters go out of style? Occasionally I receive one in a Christmas card, and even those are usually printed from a computer.

My grandmother was a great letter writer. She had family across the country and overseas that she kept in touch with through the years. I love reading their responses to her and try to imagine her reading them at our kitchen table in her housecoat drinking a cup of coffee.

Letter from Uncle Al to Nana.
Letter from Uncle Al to Nana.

The letter I cherish the most is one written by my Uncle Al. He was my grandmother’s older brother and also one of her closest friends. By the time Dad was two, my grandmother was a widow. On her first Mother’s Day without her husband, Uncle Al sent her a letter, a poem really, that he sent to her from Dad. It is sweet and I keep it alongside a note my own son wrote to me on a Mother’s Day not so long ago.

Email is wonderful to send a quick note, but it will never replace the excitement a letter brings when received in the mail, nor will it ever hold the faint scent of lavender or be tucked between the pages of a favorite book. I think it’s time the handwritten letter made a comeback.

Dear Readers,
Please tell me the last letter you wrote or received and how that made you feel.
Best regards,
The Detective’s Daughter

28 Thoughts

  1. This is so sweet, Kim. My sons and I write letters sometimes, particularly the one living in Puerto Rico. And I treasure them! I have found that my handwriting is deteriorating over time. I have to really slow down to write neatly. I think next time I have Miss B over we’ll practice writing letters. Do not want that art to be lost.

    1. I had planned to write to my son while he was away at college, but the year went by quickly, well that and we had brunch with him every Sunday! When he was small and went to camp I sent him so many letters he asked me to stop because I was embarrassing him. I think this year I will make more of an effort…and also not visit him at college every week!

  2. My Nana, GrandNana, she never wrote. I have memories of her skimming the top cream in the cold cellar, last nights milking, before hauling the cans out to the day truck, in exchange for a chit. Old memories

  3. When I was reading about the lovely letter your Uncle Al wrote, a picture of my grandmother’s beautiful handwriting on her many letters to me as a child popped into my mind. I realized how physical the act of writing a letter with your own hand is and how that makes it a very personal expression. I still write letters occasionally and have more stationery than I will ever use, but I’m reserving the right to reverse that prediction. I just got a handwritten thank you note from a niece for a baby gift. Somehow I felt her appreciation more keenly than if she’d written an email. I fear I am starting to sound very old-fashioned!

    1. I don’t think you sound old fashioned at all, you sound appreciative. I love receiving handwritten notes. The last “real” letter I received was about ten or twelve years ago when I still had a pen pal. Do people still have pen pals!?!

  4. If I want anyone to be able to read a letter from me I have to print it out and just sign it by hand. My fingers just do not work as well as they did. I do get cards with notes on them from some of my children occasionally, but we talk on the phone more than email!

  5. I still write letters and send “real” greeting cards. Still have one friend who feels the same way about the “written word” and we exchange letters even though we live in the same state. Several of my grown u p kids and grandkids still send “proper” thank you notes and like you, Michele, I really feel their appreciation. Yes, we do sound old fashioned. I don’t care!

  6. You are so lucky, Kim, to have such a wonderful cache (even if you don’t know who half the people are). My family kept very little in the way of letters from the past, and even fewer pictures (nobody knew how to use a camera??). I treasure one letter written by my great-great-grandfather to his mother during the Civil War (he was 16), but I have no idea why that particular letter survived, and no others. I have one rather snippy one-page business letter from his son-in-law to him, which I think says volumes about their relationship. We build whole worlds out of the slimmest of evidence with letters like these.

    Most recent letter? Just this week, my Irish friend (we share the Connolly surname) wrote (in ink, on paper) in response to a letter I sent her last month, asking for help to find people to help me refurbish my new cottage. She wrote back with a whole list of names–things like, the guy who owns the pub on the corner “and he knows everybody in all trades,” and another local man, “brother to the guy at the Leap Inn, is Main Man–he will sort you.” Yes, she has email and is on Facebook now and then, but a real letter is a very different thing.

    1. I love it! You’re right, you can find out so much information about someone just by reading a letter written or received by them. I have a great aunt named Leona who died when she was sixteen. My grandmother always spoke of her as if she were a saint. In these same boxes I have discovered this sainted aunt had quite a following of admirers. There are stacks of postcards with a photo of a young man on one side and a note to “the dearest Miss Leona” on the flip side. Every photo is of a different boy. It seems she was quite popular and leads me to wonder whether it truly was a “burst appendix ” that did her in.

  7. Now that my parents are gone, I have the letters my great-grandfather wrote to a niece from the Battle of Gettysburg, one for everyday of the fighting.

    As for the letters my parents kept from me–the one from camp where I explained how I had wrapped my retainer in a paper napkin while I was eating, and the table was cleared and the paper thrown into a fire. (The insurance company wouldn’t cover it, because it was a “friendly fire.”)
    And the letters I wrote from Colombia while I was an exchange student there my senior year in high school, which are full of newsy stories. They’re a lot of fun to re-read.

  8. Dear Kim, I love your letters. Two years ago author Lisa Alber started a Valentine exchange because snail mail seemed to be a thing of the past. It’s fun.

  9. In my family there are few letters but we are all storytellers. I think that started because my mom was an orphan by 10 and her Indian aunties were great storytellers, thank goodness..We are a very small family and when we are together the stories are so much fun. I’m always amazed that when I talk about my mom often one of sons joins in adding his verison. Not long ago I said my mom had no sense of humor and my sons started telling stories of how she teased them and playing tricks on them.. I’m 81 and my youngest son just turned 47 but my middle son who is 59 tells the best family stories.

  10. I can’t think of the last letter I wrote. I can’t even think of the last newsie e-mail I wrote. However, when I was in college, my grandma wrote me at least once a week. I loved getting those letters even when she didn’t really have much to say.

  11. I am so glad you saved those boxes, Kim. What a great treasure.

    Last letter I wrote? Hm. I do write thank yous. Does that count? I write a lot of email. I have a box of letters from when I was pregnant and on bed rest for 5 weeks. My mother came to stay and her sisters wrote letters to both of us. So much gossip in those pages, it’s hilarious. I am glad I saved them because, if times got tight, I could bribe several of my cousins…..

  12. I love to write and receive letters; they are so much more personal. I have letters that my Dad wrote to my Mom when he was working in a steel mill during World War Two. I treasure them and can fell his love for my Mom whenever I read them. They have been gone a long time however those letters make me feel close to them.

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