Love Letters In a Lightning-Fast Age

'WOULD you write a love letter on e-mail?'' I asked my twenty-something son. Yes, his answer flashed back. Why not write a ''real'' letter?, I retorted. Because she would get the e-mail instantly, he responded. Love is winged still and apparently won't wait for the postman to ring even once.

How odd, I thought, that this young man whose grandfather had literally courted his grandmother by mail would so quickly dismiss the old-fashioned love letter for an electronic missile. His namesake forebear had met the woman he was to marry during an Iowa summer in the early 1930s.

After one week of sitting in rose gardens and taking walks in the cool part of the day, she returned to her teaching job in California, and he, a young newspaperman, began his long-distance courtship.

An engagement ring was sent airmail. The plane crashed; the ring was miraculously recovered from the wreckage and again sent on its way. The following summer, my father-in-law-to-be drove West in his friend Mud Benson's Ford, and a pretty but simple wedding initiated a lifetime together that was to last some 50-odd years.

And now my son would prefer to sit at his screen writing that his love's eyes are the color of cornflowers, soft and blue, as Grandmother's were. Or that his lady is a tender soul, as was his grandmother, who couldn't resist buying violets from a street vendor on her first trip to France and who was so generous that every member of the family still has a carefully selected keepsake from that ''grand tour.''

Would his e-love, delivered as rapidly as the beating of his ardent heart, be addressed to the young woman who whisked by me at the train station this morning, her running shoes meant more for a jog than a stroll in the moonlight? Perhaps this programmed courtship will appeal to her sense of cool efficiency. But not to me.

There's no reason that the language used in e-mail can't be as silly and sappy and sincere as that used throughout the centuries in forms ranging from hieroglyphics on papyri to the purplest prose on a lace-edged valentine.

It's possible, I suppose, that the same screen on which I write my various business letters and memoranda can also emit a sentimental glow. It just takes some getting used to.

Still, I couldn't help asking myself, wouldn't my son want to write a love letter in his own hand, with my father's fountain pen -- the one my son was given on his 21st birthday -- just as my father had?

Would he not want to press a flower in the folds of his letter, as his father had once done in a letter to me? Would he not want his recipient to have the pleasure of collecting his letters, tying them with a ribbon, and placing them in a box for safekeeping? Would he not want to relish the moment between the letter and the response, as an eternity to hold close?

Perhaps I can convert him, perhaps not. And maybe his way is best for now. I hope, though, that his love will get a letter in the old-fashioned way.

Something tells me that when he truly falls in love, e-mail will not do, and that while times may change, hearts do not. So I make a plea for love letters and a language of intimacy too delicate for technology.

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