Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Sept. 4, 2003

Letters and e-mail

Most correspondence I receive from family and friends now is through e-mail. E-mail makes it easy to write a few lines, attach digital or scanned photos, include links to newspaper articles, and push the send button at any time of day or night. There's no need to find an envelope, stick on a stamp and run to the Post Office to mail it.

But despite its convenience, I have mixed feelings about e-mail. I love the fact that I can get quick updates from family and friends or that I can write a paragraph or two and not feel that I have to write something profound. If I have a question, the reply can come as quickly as minutes instead of days later.

Yet I frequently think about something that happened about 10 years ago whenever I e-mail friends and relatives. Art and I were digging through an old trunk in the disused brooder house on my parents' farm when we came across a bundle of letters tied with a ribbon. They had been sealed with red wax and, upon opening them, we discovered they were written in the early and mid-1850s by my great-great-great grandparents Rose and Robert Shannon. The Shannons were living near Toronto after emigrating from Ireland, and the letters were addressed to their daughter and son-in-law who were living near Sterling, Illinois. The letters were still quite legible, and perhaps only another family historian can understand the enjoyment we had reading them.

Another stack of letters was stored by my Mom in a trunk inside the house. These were what she and her cousins called their "round-robin" letters. One of them would write a letter to a cousin. That cousin would add information about her family, send it to the next cousin and so on.

The letters began in 1954 and continued off and on until family Christmas letters replaced them in the late 1960s.

A letter Mom wrote on March 24, 1954 included seven small black and white photos pasted here and there to show her cousins how my brother and I were growing. I was six months old and David was six.

"Dear cousins," Mom's letter began. "It's a good thing Linnea's letter came on a rainy day as rainy days are dandy for catching up on correspondence. Linnea has a brilliant idea of introducing ourselves. (After all, we are almost strangers even though cousins.) So I'll be a copy cat and do likewise." The letter continued with details about me cutting teeth and David being a book worm.

A letter dated July 29, 1955, included information about the weather and about my sister Gaila, born in January that year.

"Dear cousins, Forgive me won't you please. Somehow this letter got tucked away and almost forgotten. I couldn't have chosen a worse day to write as it is 106 degrees on the back porch at 4:30 p.m.

"... Yesterday I really got things done - 10 lines of family wash out and in again by noon and everything folded, ironing sprinkled, 3 linoleums scrubbed, toy room all re-sorted and junk burned (while kids out of sight.) It won't be missed only it would be if I were caught doing it in their presence! How about it Mamas, haven't you done likewise?

"... Our little Gaila is so perfect you'd never know she was around ... The only time she cries is when Gloria thinks life is getting dull so she runs to Gaila's bed, slaps both hands on it, and then screams or says 'boo.' This really sets Gaila off but it hardly ever happens if I'm quick enough. Gloria loves her to pieces but is too little to understand so I have to be on the watch if I have them together."

Then came the letters when we kids were a little older. They were full of news about trumpet and piano lessons, 4-H projects, school activities, holiday fun and even car accidents.

It's fun to read those letters and to share them with my daughters, who also like to hear stories about their baby days.

But when telephoning long distance became inexpensive enough that people began to do it for occasions other than emergencies, letter writing began to wane. While e-mail can keep us in touch easily and cheaply, future generations will not be left letters that revealed so much about who we are. Even though I'm printing out and keeping some of the e-mails I send and receive, it's just not quite the same as a bundle of letters tied up in pretty bows and lovingly stored in an old trunk.

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