(From "Language Matters"----www.ncarts.org)
Old Letters for the New Year
By Kathryn Stripling Byer
By Kathryn Stripling Byer
Lately, my brother and I have been exploring the contents of the attic in the house where we
grew up. We greeted this new year without my father’s presence, and perhaps that is why we
have felt so drawn to what remains of our ancestors whose books, letters, journals,
and articles of clothing rest in the attic like relics.
We found century-old letters from our great-grandparents and one letter from a great-greatgrandfather writing from County Clare, Ireland, in 1869, telling his son Will how proud he
would always be of him. We found another from his daughter, Nell, speaking of our great-
grandfather’s childhood and early manhood, written to his wife, my great-grandmother Ella
Valentine Fry, after her husband’s death. My great-grandmother was quite a letter-writer herself, educated well enough to become a teacher at age 16 in the Lead City, South Dakota schools, the first female so “nominated” to that post. My brother and I unfolded each of these letters as if they were the most precious items in the house. Each one was written with care, the handwriting graceful, the language itself literate in both style and grammar. These letters obviously mattereda great deal to both the authors and the recipients. Now, more than a century later, they speak to us in ways we’ve only begun to appreciate.
Who among us writes letters like this anymore, I wondered, as I read the words that flowed from those long-ago pens, the ink fading, but the language still vibrant? Whose handwriting could match theirs? Not mine. I type my letters, my handwriting increasingly unreadable and hurried. Or, like more and more of us, I email my correspondence. With the click of a mouse, I send my messages. I do not labor with a dip pen to put into durable words my love for a child gone to thenew world to become a miner in South Dakota. My messages are nothing like the letters we found by a sister writing across the Atlantic about her dead brother’s love of tools and engineering. Like so many of us, I am in a hurry. My correspondence is fleeting, disposable.
Most of it will be deleted.
In his poem “Please Write: Don’t Phone,” Robert Watson, my former teacher in the UNC-G
writing program, exhorts, “Let us write instead: surely our fingers spread out / With pen on paper touch more of the mind’s flesh.” He explains, “I can touch the paper you touch,” and “I can read you day after day.” His last lines continue to haunt me: “I hold the envelope that you addressed in my hand. / I hold the skin that covers you.”
In this new year of email and instant-messaging, few seem to have time to sit down and put their lives onto paper that can be unfolded again and again, or placed in a drawer for safe-keeping. The flesh of my family’s past resides in those yellowing sheets of paper we found in the attic. I carry their words into the new year, resolved to write more letters in long-hand, letting the words rise slowly to the surface and take shape on the empty page like a gift to be cherished.