I wrote my daughter a letter, and she couldn’t read it.
I poured out my thoughts about her challenging cross country season and how it’s a metaphor for life: there will always be hills to climb and obstacles to overcome, but you must persevere. Sometimes, the best you can do is one foot over the other.
I was anxious to hear her reaction to my words of wisdom. But when she returned from a retreat weekend in upstate Connecticut, she didn’t mention it.
“What did you think of my letter?” I finally asked.
“I have no idea what you were saying because you wrote it in cursive,” she said. “I only got about half of what you said. What’s with all those curly letters? It looks like you wrote it really fast.”
Seriously? I wrote it on two sheets of loose leaf paper, pausing often to think of exactly what I wanted to say. I could have batted it out on the computer in two minutes, but I opted for long hand because there’s something very personal and intimate about it.
I jumped at the chance to write a letter to my daughter because I never do. I have a friend Wendy whose mother slipped notes into her lunchbox every day. My friend Lizzie’s mom wrote to her every day she was away at summer camp. That was no easy feat, since Lizzie spent the entire summer at camp.
But my family has never been big on personal notes, and my mailbox is proof of it. I almost never get personal mail unless it’s a birthday or anniversary card from my mother, Christmas cards or the occasional thank you note. I’m equally bad at personal mail: I don’t even have a stash of monogrammed stationery or postage stamps any more.
I was invited to write my letter by the youth minister director at our local church. My daughter is becoming a peer minister, and would be helping with a group of kids going on weekend retreat. As part of the retreat, kids would be getting letters from parents, siblings and relatives about what they mean to them.
The director thought it might be nice for my daughter to have a letter while everyone else was reading theirs. My last letter was when she went on retreat last year just before her Confirmation. I wrote that letter on my computer and printed it out.
I decided to hand write this letter on a whim. I tried to convey my feelings about her in the least sappy way possible. I’m not a sappy person, so that wouldn’t be too hard. But sometimes writing to someone you love and your relationship brings up things that you didn’t know were there.
The mother-daughter relationship is complicated. We love our girls to pieces, but boy they can be tough. Between the drama, tears and screaming from both of us at times, our feelings often get lost in the shuffle. At the end of the day, I think all moms just want their daughters to feel loved. Sometimes, writing a letter reminds you what this whole parenting thing is about.
I’d forgotten how feminine my handwriting is. It’s loopy and curvy, filled with curlicues I had no idea were lingering in my brain and dying to find their way to paper. I paused several times to make sure it was legible. Unlike many lefties, I’ve always taken pride in my penmanship: it doesn’t slant backwards and could pass for a righty’s. At least I think so.
Many schools have stopped teaching cursive, but penmanship was a big deal when I was a kid. We began learning cursive in third grade, starting with lower case letters before moving into capital letters. I was the first in my class to be able to write my name in cursive because we covered all the letters in the name Carolyn. We all got cool cartridge pens – my first had bright yellow barrel – and those ink-filled tubes that leaked everywhere.
Cartridge pens are tough for lefties – my homework was often smudged with blue ink from my pinkie dragging across the page – but penmanship was a rite of passage, a sign of becoming a big kid. By eight or nine, you had the signature that would carry you into adulthood unless you chose to change it.
I’ve never liked my handwriting. There are often gaps, as though I lack the energy or conviction to completely steer the pen to the end of a word. And there is an inconsistency in my letters: my capital Gs are a crapshoot along with my lower case Zs. I’m sure a handwriting analyst would have a field day with it.
Reporting wrecked havoc on my handwriting because I had to write incredibly fast taking notes. People assumed I was using shorthand, but it was actually my own system of abbreviating words and terms to get everything down as quickly as possible.
I began writing on a computer screen (aka VDT) at my first newspaper job in the early ’80s. Though I initially wondered whether I’d be able to compose on a screen, I quickly adapted. I can’t imagine writing any other way now.
When I took a writing class last year, I showed up with my laptop raring to go. I was quickly told by our teacher that unless I was disabled and unable to write, I should put the laptop away because we’d be using pen and paper.
Other students scribbled away while I sat there and pondered my navel. I found myself sitting and thinking about what I was writing more often than on my computer. It’s amazing how much careful you are with words when there’s no delete button.
Though writing on the computer is still my preferred method, studies show that writing by hand is actually better for you, engaging more parts of your brain and unleashing more creativity. It’s easier to bat out words on a computer, but you think longer, better and harder with a pen and paper. Imagine that.
My daughter’s inability to read my handwriting got me thinking about how rarely I write letters. At the very least, I needed a box of fine stationery, a nice pen and some stamps.
I drove to Two Ems, an old-time stationery store in nearby Madison, CT., and looked at stationery that might fit the bill. I wanted writing paper that reflected my personality, but had a little trouble settling on a design.
Writing paper embossed with a black octopus: too intimidating; horses: pretentious (I don’t ride); a bright pink beach bag: too preppy; a blue hydrangea: pretty, but not exactly right; a bee: nah, and two birds in a nest: too intimate. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea.
I finally chose a set of blank cards embossed with a tiny gold elephant with an upturned trunk. It reminded me of my Great Aunt Clara, who collected elephants with upturned trunks because she believed they were a sign of good luck. It somehow seemed fitting for a long gone relative to play a part in resurrecting the long lost art of letter writing.
I considered buying a snazzy pen – do you believe Cross has a $450 pen that has GPS so you never lose it? But I decided to save my money and buy an old-fashioned wax sealer featuring an ink well and quill. It seemed fitting given the circumstances.
I now have the tools I need to write a proper letter. Now the only challenge is sitting down, writing it and actually getting it in the mail.