Monday, March 31, 2008

You’ve Got Mail

From the time I was 15 until 20, my parents and I lived apart. They were working as missionaries in Africa, and I stayed here in the US when they returned to Africa after a long vacation. Because of this separation, our primary—actually, our only—means of communication was letter writing.

To facilitate letter writing, we used
aerograms—I don’t even know if this letter form is still available for purchase, but they were single blue sheets that you wrote on the inside, then folded up into a self-contained envelope. These letters were sent via airmail, and were the quickest means of getting news back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.

I would write a letter to my parents, mail it, and in a week they would get it. Then they would respond with a return aerogram. In all, it took two weeks for questions and answers or news to go back and forth. Long distances advice with a significant time lag!

This asynchronous means of communication came flooding back to me this week, following a somewhat humorous exchange between my daughter and me. She had sent me an email, indicating her plans to do something; whereupon I replied “make sure you [blah blah blah].” She responded cautioning me not to be a transatlantic nag.

I thought that was such a funny response, but it also got me to thinking. What a world of difference in communication in some 40 years.

Throughout the five years my parents and I were separated, we must have written hundreds of letters back and forth. Usually my mother wrote to me, but one time my dad took up the weekly writing. I don’t remember this, but he does—apparently, getting a letter from my dad was so singular, that I went running through the halls of my college dorm yelling that I got a letter from my dad. And, of course, I must have told him that I did that because he remembered the report of the event.

Sometimes the asynchronous timing meant that stale news was going back and forth. Not long before my parents returned to the U.S., I had written asking my dad to round up a coin series of Rhodesian coins for my then boyfriend, who was a collector. My dad dutifully complied, bringing the coins along back. However, by then, that was stale news as the boy in question was no longer my boyfriend. I had no instant way of saying—never mind. My dad gave me the coins, and I gave them to the ex-boyfriend, to my dad’s regret (I think).

If I had an especially pressing personal problem that I wanted to talk out with my parents, the time lag was excruciating. True, I had my uncle and aunt who were my legal guardians but they had moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois, exacerbating the distance from adults to give advice. One of the impacts on my personality, not surprisingly, is the high degree of self-sufficiency that I possess. But still, it would have been nice to talk some issues out with my parents.

Times change. Not only do we have the advantage of daily emails, if we wish, with our daughter and of instant messaging, but we also can talk to her as often as we want. The advances in telephone communication are almost as breathtaking as those in letter writing. Phone technology such as communicating through computers has completely revolutionized this means of contact.

During the 5 years that my parents and I were apart, I talked with them on the phone ONCE. That’s right—once. There were no satellites to relay phone calls, only the transatlantic cable. So, if you wanted to talk with someone by phone, you had to call the international operator and RESERVE time. And then the cost was very steep. My college friends took up a collection gathering $25 for a 3 minute phone call. So once in our 5 year separation, I heard my mother’s voice, my father’s and my brother’s and sister’s voices once.

We compensated for this lack of voice communication by sending audio tapes back and forth. I recounted one of the amusing outcomes of these tape messages in my post on
Sibling Stories II. My mother, trying to get my sister to talk, told her to “talk to Donna” while pointing at the tape recorder. My sister hesitated, then said in her little girl voice—is Donna inside that machine? The result was so much more authentic than anything a little girl of 3 or 4 might have said.

Contrast to this long distance oh so slow voice communication the near weekly telephone conversations with our daughter. I marvel at the changes, and cherish all the news sharing we can do. And, deep down, I think of my mother and just know how much she would have liked to hear her elder daughter’s voice.

So, we have gained and we have lost with the changes in communication. The gains are obvious—fast, easy contact with loved ones. The losses—all those letters that will no longer be written. Several years ago, when I wrote a biography of my grandparents, I relied on letters they had written to each other during their courtship years. Letters from the early 1900s provided me a wonderful insight into their young lives. With email today, who will save these “letters”? Who will print them off, lovingly fold them, place them in a box, and store them in an attic?

Mail call—letter for Donna! Or “you’ve got mail”—either way, I love staying in touch with my family.


Anvilcloud said...

I used to save the emails that were real letters. I think I have three binders full plus some on CD's only before I gave it up. Once I started blogging, I put less into emails, and stopped saving them. However, I do save and print some of my blog posts now.

Anonymous said...

I rarely get any letters anymore but I feel that I am communicating with my friends and online friends more often than I had ever before! It is amazing how technology has changed all our lives and it is so instant now days! This was very interesting and thanks for sharing this with us!

JeanMac said...

What a great post. I had forgotten about those. We tend to take for granted our instant communication these days.

Climenheise said...

I miss letters. At least, I miss getting letters. I don't miss writing them. Emails work better for me!

I also remember that conversation. Such pinging and delay on the line! It is hard to explain what a transatlantic call was like before satellite communications, and skype, and all the other ways we are bound together today. Do you remember where we were when you called? My memory says, Livingstone; but I can think of no good reason we would have been there rather than in Bulawayo.

KGMom said...

ALL--reluctantly, I have gone to word verification on comments, since with this post and the last one I have received 3 spam comments, one that actually directed the reader to a virus site. Sorry to have to do this.

AC--I was doing something similar, saving emails esp. when our daughter visited eastern Europe several years ago. But since then I have given up.

Mon@rch--technology certainly has changed things.

Jean--yes we do take our instant communication for granted, but I am grateful for it.

Daryl--you remember it? Of course I do. I have no recollection where you were, though Livingstone doesn't make sense since to place the call you had to give the transatlantic operator the phone number, and I assume I gave them the Bulawayo number.

dguzman said...

Well no wonder it took two weeks--judging from the hot air balloon stamp on the front of the aerogramme!

I often fret about the lack of written-on-paper communication these days, but I think that when they dig us and all our trash up in thousands of years, they'll get the hint that we were not a very literate society. Perhaps we should all print out our blogs from time to time?

Beverly said...

I love this post. It brings back such wonderful memories. After I was in Haiti for a term, I went to France for a 3-month crash ocurse in French. At that time I had begun correspondence with my future husband, and one of those aerograms arrived almost every day, and I sent one off almost every day. Yes, I still have them.

Denise said...

I remember aerograms. I also remember sending one to Daryl, and being the dutiful elder brother, sent it back to me corrected. It had red marks all over it, with grammar and punctuation corrections. I wish I had kept it for proof, but alas, I did not and one can only go on my word. I am glad we have email today. It helps to keep connected in our busy world. How times have changed.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I have a box full of letters. I had a penpal in Wales for over 30 years beginning when I was 16. I was linked with her through an exchange teacher. I wish I could locate her now so we might e-mail. I feel badly for letting the relationship slide.

I also have a large bundle of love letters. When I was courting my future wife 60 miles from my college I would write her Sunday night, as did she to me, We would get out letters Wednesday and I would rush home to see her on Friday to only repeat this pattern for a year. Needless to say we had little but nonsense to say in our letter writing. We got married the next summer which worked out much better.

Ruth said...

I was an avid pen-pal as a teenager and wrote weekly letters to a number of faraway friends. Blogging is kind of like that...

Cathy said...

You're so right, Donna. There is still something so special about receiving snail mail.

I love the photo of the old letters and it reminds me that my mother recently told me that she and dad burned their letters after he returned from Europe and WWII.