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Old School Is Never Out Of Style

Quiet Car

Amtrak 176

November 22, 2021

My friend Jack and I were discussing handwritten thank you note this weekend. Here’s a timely opinion piece from the Times. Are we really so busy we can’t find the time to hand write a thank you note?


When I was a little girl, I loved to stand at my grandmother’s elbow while she wrote notes. Her desk was a small secretary, the furniture equivalent of an arranged marriage between a chest of drawers and a glass-fronted bookcase. Carved into the corners of the backboard were a pair of screaming gargoyle-like creatures in bas-relief, their surly beards made from deep black hatch marks.

You would think a child too young to read would also be too young to regard those gargoyles with equanimity. I was not a particularly brave child, but the scary faces never troubled me. My grandmother’s secretary had been my great-grandmother’s first and is now mine. I sometimes look at those gargoyles, amazed they did not give me nightmares as a child.

Maybe I never noticed them screaming so far above my head. I wasn’t interested in anything about Mimi’s secretary except for the desk hidden behind a panel that dropped down from a shelf above the drawers. I loved the cubbies in back where Mimi kept stamps, paper clips, a stapler and tape, a ledger of some kind. I loved the stationery, and I loved the ink pens. A hiding place, just for writing!

Written language was a magic trick. My grandmother’s handwriting looked nothing like my mother’s, or my great-grandmother’s, and yet whatever any of them wrote could be understood by anybody who knew how to read. Was there anything more mysterious or more profound? To a child in love with language, the secretary was an altar, its hidden compartment a tabernacle.

One day when I was 12 or 13, Mimi looked up from her writing. “Someday this will be your desk,” she said to me. “You’re the writer in the family, and someday this will be yours.”

My grandmother lived to be deep into her 90s, so “someday” was a long time coming, and by then I had all but ceased to write anything by hand. Right up until she lost her eyesight, Mimi wrote faithfully to many friends and family members, a habit she had surely developed by living for much of her life during a time and in a place without telephone service. The opposite was true for me. At her funeral, I had a phone in my bag. Even as we sang “Amazing Grace,” unanswered emails were piling up in the ether.

Email is a hydra, spawning new snake-headed messages with every response. You answer a message from one person, and a dozen reply-all emails come flying back. By the time my grandmother’s secretary found its way to my house, email monopolized so much of the day that there was little left over for the kind of thoughtful writing implied by a desk built just for correspondence.

Rebellion against the email leash chaining me to my computer may explain my 2021 New Year’s resolution to write a note, by hand, every day of this year. Or maybe it was the leftover stamps my father-in-law passed along whenever he worked on the stamp collection he had maintained since boyhood. Or the beautiful notecards made from recycled paper that I can never resist, no matter how rarely I used them. Resolving to write a letter every day would help me use up the stamps and notecards accumulated over many years, repudiate the entire virtual world, and honor my grandmother at the same time. It’s one of the nicest resolutions I’ve ever made.

Mimi kept her milk glass collection on the secretary’s shelves, but I have turned them into a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities, where small treasures from nature can be safely tucked away and still remain fully visible: eggshells and wasp nests and praying mantis egg sacs, dead insects, seashells and crinoid fossils, snakeskins and one old turtle shell time-bleached to the color of bone. There’s a reassurance that rises from writing at an ancient family desk surrounded by reminders of the living world and its endless cycles.

Between those reminders and the writing itself, I can feel myself slowing down. This is not the kind of writing I can blast through at a messy speed, correcting later. This kind of writing requires a deliberation that little else in my life requires: one thought, one word, one sentence at a time.

In that sense, the letters are as much for me as for their recipients: a thin, scrawled thread connecting us across the miles, linking their grief with my grief, their joy with my joy, their generosity with my thanks. Sometimes this practice reminds me to act on my own generosity, a way to tell people I love or admire that I’m thinking of them. I like to imagine how surprised they will be to find a handwritten letter tucked among the bills and the ads they never glance at for products they will never need.

Not that making time is easy. It may have been a mistake to have hit on such an ambitious project during a pandemic that keeps making nearly everything harder. But I don’t regret it. Despite one setback after another — the death of my beloved father-in-law, health issues in the family, major surgery — this project is self-rewarding, so I keep finding my way back to it, and to my grandmother’s secretary.

Finding time for anything that matters will always be a challenge, but the notes themselves aren’t hard. All that dread, for years, always putting off and putting off the obligation of a thank-you note or the duty of a condolence letter — why did I waste so much time on dread?

With every renewed effort, I marvel again at how easy it is. How it takes almost nothing to write just a few lines, nothing to fix a stamp in the corner, to walk the letter out to the mailbox and lift the little metal flag to tell the mail carrier to stop at this house. I wish I had known long ago how much pleasure I would take in lifting that little red flag. I wish I’d remembered how much I love the smell of paper and ink and the memory of my grandmother, sitting at this very secretary, the way she said, “You’re the writer in the family” and made it real.

This is the 326th day of the year, and it is clear now that I will not come remotely close to making my goal of 365 handwritten notes. At best, I will hit 200. Still, I’ve spent this hard year being reminded, again and again, of the magic I recognized as a child at my grandmother’s elbow.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am filled with gratitude for the people I want to greet, the people I hope to console, the people I need to thank. And they’re all only a mailbox away.

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