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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Disappearing Act of Writing a Letter by Linda Rader Overman

I take out a sheet of paper and smooth its curled edges with my hands as I lay it on my writing desk. The paper is not white, rather more of a beige or splash-of-cream color, really. It contains no lines, just the minimal echo of the tree it once was part of. I take a whiff and it smells of ink and pencil and the perfume I'd dripped on the desk a bit earlier. There are no spots on the page fortunately, yet the scent is of lemon and salt and the sea. My favorite fountain pen, an old Waterman, the color of malachite, given to me years earlier still feels able-bodied and ready in my hand. I think a moment and then put pen to paper.

Truth is the sheer act of writing a letter in just this way to a person, placing it in an envelope, licking a stamp to it and mailing it, sadly, appears to be a dying art. And partly why I chose to write Letters Between Us as an epistolary novel, to recapture that art, just a little.

Now we have email, blogs, Skype, Webcams, instant messaging, and texting - so much faster, quicker, and more efficient. There is something to be said, however, about the act of holding a pen in your hand and writing to friend or family member, even if only to share a brief hello, a thoughtful remembrance, a declaration of love, or something more. It is embedded with the careful process of cogitative thought, let alone leaves a palpable imprint of the writer's energy. One day it might even be a treasure to be discovered amongst the long forgotten possessions of another. In addition, writing a letter in such a way brings to light a voice distinctively different from other genres of writing. Imperfect, unedited it is a reflection of the times in the raw.

What would we have done without the letters exchanged between loved ones during war time: the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, for example? From such letters we have the voices of a private history from long dead family members and/or friends in their own hand-writing importing a tone that we may never have actually heard them speak during their life time.

This happened after my mother-in-law died. We found love letters written to her on V-Mail (or Victory mail, which was the microfilming of specially designed letter sheets. So as not to waste cargo ship space with large bulks of shipped mail overseas, microfilmed copies were sent instead and then enlarge" at an overseas destination before being delivered to military personnel). My husband's mother, Martha, was affectionately addressed as "Toni" by her husband away fighting in the Pacific theatre during World War II. No one in the family understood why Marvyn Overman called Martha Overman - Toni? But there it was in the salutation in a facsimile of a letter-sheet reproduced to about one-quarter the original size: Dear Toni, My beautiful Toni, Beloved Toni. Toni. Toni - she will always be Martha to me - was back home in Hollywood, California raising her toddler son: my husband.

This little bit of information called to mind a young couple, they were 25 at the time, deeply in love and suffering from separation. The loving voice of this couple is one I never heard either of them use in the decades that I spent in their presence. Basically, they communicated by fighting, yelling and forgiving and then doing it all over again. Family dinners at their home were usually: eat fast, hold our breaths, talk a little, and hope Marvyn and Martha didn't do their "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" routine on that particular night. Once they began, all we could do was wait for a break in the action, and cut and run. And yet, they once talked of love and nicknames no doubt written and whispered to one another in days gone by. To this day neither my husband, nor his two brothers know the origin of this pet name for their mother.

Being separated by war is nothing new to this generation of 18-34 year olds. Computers and their full complement of audio/video software enable close circuit communication over many miles and multiple time zones. Families separated by the current wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere can talk to and see each other as if they were sitting in the same room. These conversations over thousands of miles have meaning and impact, don't get me wrong. But as far as leaving a written record as the letter I am completing to my unborn great grandchild (who exists only in my imagination and that of her potential parents: my son or my daughter) I can't help but wonder if she or he will prefer to benefit more from this piece of myself on paper, which wears my perfume and is embossed with traces of my own hand writing - or from popping in a portable drive that shows me moving and talking. There's no perfume in that.

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