When summer camp forbids laptops, there's always letter writing

As I was writing a letter to our son Will, who is away at boarding camp for seven weeks, I felt a vague sense of historical reenactment – as if I were firing a musket or cooking over a hearth.

Elise Amendola, Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society/AP/file
Original letters of John Adams, left, written to his wife Abigail from Philadelphia on July 3, 1776, and Thomas Jefferson, right, written to Adams from Monticello on March 25, 1826 are shown at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston July 2, 1996. The two signers of the Declaration of Independence shared a years-long correspondence.

My wife and I recently dropped off our 12-year-old son at a seven-week summer boarding camp, and as part of the program, Will had to leave his laptop at home. The camp also greatly limits phone use as another way to reduce distractions. We like those rules, although we wondered, on the drive to camp, how Will could pass along the occasional story or bit of news to friends and family.

As our trip was nearing its finish, we remembered an old solution. Will could always mail us a handwritten letter.

I pulled into a bookstore not far from the camp and took our son to the stationery section. Standing at a wire rack and surveying the merchandise, we quickly realized that we were out of luck. All we could see were boxes of pastel paper decorated with showy flowers and lacy monograms. The display was clearly telling my son that correspondence was something done only by ladies sipping their tea. I might as well have asked him to buy a pack of doilies or a bottle of perfume. He balked, swearing off the thought of such literary cross-dressing.

We skipped the stationery idea that day, although back at home, my wife found a pack of sensible white paper and plain envelopes at an office supply store and mailed them to Will, along with a book of stamps and two letters from both of us. We hope that he’ll like our letters as much as the one from his grandmother that he’s kept for years – a note he still takes out and rereads from time to time.

Not long before she died, my mother wrote Will a letter telling him the usual grandmotherly stuff about how smart and good he was. He loves the sentiment of the writing, of course, but also the handwriting itself. The high loops and precarious slant of the script brings my mother to life in a way that an email never could. An email efficiently carries text, but a handwritten letter paints an image of language.

Or so I was reminded during Will’s camp orientation for parents, when the program’s art instructor assured us that any child could learn to draw. “All of us started as artists when we wrote our first words on paper,” he told the audience. “When we write, we’re making pictures of words.”

In the title essay of his new book, “This Living Hand,” author Edmund Morris touches on the continuing power of handwritten letters, even in a high-tech era. “Why, in the age of voice mail, is script still the preferred style for messages of great intimacy? Because it is both direct and enduring,” he tells readers. “Handwritten words mean more the more they are read, and time only increases their first force.”

Watching my wife write her first letter to Will, I also noticed how the prospect of pen moving across paper sharpened her concentration – her eyes peering into the distance as she tried to summon the sentence that she would create, as if waving a wand, by applying a ballpoint to her note card. The indelibility of the ink suggested that thought should precede action, a principle not always evident when fingers fly across computer keyboards.

None of this is meant to argue for a full-scale renaissance in old-fashioned letters. I love the quickness and convenience of email, which allowed the essay you’re now reading to travel thousands of miles from writer to editor in the blink of an eye. That technological advantage promises to keep handwritten letters on the verge of obsolescence.

As I was writing my own letter to Will, I felt a vague sense of historical reenactment, as if I were firing a musket or cooking over a hearth.

But there has been pleasure, in these torpid days of summer, in looking toward the porch mailbox and expecting something more than a catalog or bill. I’m hoping, with each visit from the mailman, to find a letter from someone I love.

That ritual won’t last, I know, but I’m going to enjoy it while I can.
Danny Heitman, an author and a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, has also taught at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

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