`We should write' -- tips for staying in touch with a far-flung family

It is easy to say letters are an effective way for family members to stay in touch when the children go off to school and jobs or begin families of their own. But what if you think letter writing is not your strong point? And your long-distance phone bill imitates the national debt? Here are some thoughts:

Begin a post-card exchange. The message space is small but it truly is the touch of home that counts. And it can be fun. Cards range from the silly to the poetic; from seasonal scenes to famous paintings from art museums.

A grandson at boarding school keeps a special bulletin board for his collection from his grandparents and his classmates contribute cards from across the country for him to send in return.

Operate a clipping service. Envelopes bulging with news items and cartoons are a welcome sight at mail call. Watch newspapers and magazines for articles that amuse or inform. You might make a few brief comments in a note -- and soon you might be writing a whole letter.

A daughter found a story about the joys (and hazards) of wallpapering a room and sent it to her mother with a written account of her childhood memories of that experience in their own household. She discovered letter writing was easy when she drew upon her own experience.

Send greeting cards which say ``thinking of you.'' Busy young people find this an especially helpful way to fill the spaces between long, catching-up-on-the-news letters. The artwork on such cards may be sweet or funny, but the message is clear.

Use little note papers instead of letter-size. Some papers fold into their own envelopes. Again, the writing space is small, but your thoughtfulness will be appreciated.

Some organizations sell cards and notepapers as fund-raisers; for example, UNICEF raises money for the United Nations Children's Fund with all-occasion cards and stationery designed by famous artists worldwide. This enables your message to do double duty -- to contact a loved one and aid a cause.

Send mementos from things you do. A theater program, a movie review from the newspaper, the menu from the cruise ship on your last trip -- they can put into words what you want to say.

Begin a photo-of-the-month exchange. Dig into the family album or take pictures of familiar faces and places. A mother sent her son some of his childhood photos and found herself writing memories she had never shared. Her son, deeply touched, replied: ``Send more of my life history.''

Keep a diary. An executive wrote a paragraph a day before leaving his office and mailed off the paragraphs at the end of the week to his daughter. ``At first it was pretty mundane,'' he said, ``but soon I was looking for interesting things to write about and it became a real dialogue between us.''

Share your letter with others. When the family gathers or you are with friends, pass the letter paper around and let each write a greeting. The page will fill up fast.

Remember, it is not a skill with words that counts; it is the sight of an envelope from home or from the child away from home that brings a smile and a warm, loving touch across the miles.

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