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Tuesday, June 03 2014 07:50

Recently. I found a letter that I wrote at age eleven. It is postmarked October 2, 1939, and addressed to “Miss Margret Desmond, 28 east 10 street, New York City.” (Note: I misspelled Miss Desmond’s first name.)

My parents and I had stayed with Margaret during my initial visit to the big city. 

Peg, as we called her, was my mother’s best friend.  They had first met in 1917, on the train carrying them from Boston to college in Washington, D.C.

In 1939, Peg was working as a literary agent, an occupation that then seemed elite to me and, given my abiding love of books, still does. A few years later, her doctor advised her to get out of Manhattan; so, for her health, she came to live with us.

That this letter was passed on to me decades later suggests that Peg loved receiving it. She had a deep affection for our family, and was delighted to have been our hostess. She treasured the letter for more than fifty years.

For me, the highlight of this first visit to New York was attending a radio program called “Information Please.” A panel show, it ranked as one of the most listened-to shows on the air. 

In my letter I explained how I used the “Information Please” experience as my entry in a classroom contest for the best oral composition.  More than seven  decades later, I am surprised to see myself taking pleasure at finishing among the top eight students!

In the oral composition, and in the note, I explained how the program worked.

Its moderator was Clifton Fadiman and a panel of three smart fellows handled questions mailed in by listeners. John Kieran, Franklin P. Adams, and Oscar Levant were almost as knowledgeable as Google and much wittier.

My letter carries many misspellings. In those days, errors of this sort would need improvement.  Now, of course, even eleven-year-olds have Spell Check. But errors still show up in handwritten letters. This reminds us that uniformity has not yet triumphed.

Perhaps regrettably, the letter lacks amusing social gaffes. It falls short of the hilarious remark of my young daughter, responding to an aunt who had treated her to lunch. “I had a wonderful time even though the meat was tough.” That letter, too, was treasured.

 My letter concludes by using the word “so” twice. “I have to do my homework now so so long.”

This ancient thank-you note stands at the beginning of a long history of letter writing for me.  Contrary to current practice, I still send letters to friends and strangers.  Most recipients welcome them, I believe, once they get over their shock at receiving something handwritten on paper.

My comments are not meant to disparage email. I use it daily and value the easy communication it offers.  How wondrous to have at hand a way of getting in touch with the whole wide world! 

However, I defy you to find in a bookstore “The Collected Emails” of your favorite writers. 

The email medium does not readily lend itself to preservation. Nor does it require the thinking that goes with writing letters. Composing a letter demands more than superficial thought.  At least that’s how I regard the letters I send out and the personal ones I delight in finding within my mailbox.

Some twenty years after my thank-you note, I wrote a series of letters to my mother.  They detailed what it was like for me to live in Europe from 1963 to 1965.

Many years later, I was astonished to receive from her a packet of those letters she had saved.  They continue to be precious to me, illustrating the enduring value of letter writing.