Associate editor of Sojourner Magazine, Rose Marie Berger, has some lovely things to say about the poignancy of writing letters. ‘Where does house sitting come into it?’ you may ask. I’m only going to say two words: ‘Leghorn’ and ‘chickens’.
A well-written letter once virtually saved my life. I was 21 and housesitting for my parents while they attended a family reunion in Nebraska. My only responsibility was to feed and water my dad’s Leghorn chickens. (He had raised these 24 from chicks.) What followed was a tragedy worthy of John Steinbeck. The story involves Bubonic plague, the rare avian division of the local agricultural school, ipecac, and, ultimately, 24 dead chickens. My only escape from parental wrath was an explanatory letter that left him laughing so hard he forgot to yell. These many years later, distant cousins still know me as the one who wrote ‘the dead chicken letter.’
Letters do not just convey facts and information, but reveal a sliver of our soul. A well-written letter requires self-reflection and intimacy that e-mail, faxes, and the Internet just cannot replace. ‘It’s the physicality of the letters,’ says Irish writer Nuala O’Faolin, ‘the different weights of the paper, the blotting Spiro pen, the hastily scrawled pencil, the sloping loops of penmanship.’ While this physicality becomes lost in published anthologies, what remains is the unique way a person tells another who she really is while also giving us hints about the recipient.
On my last birthday, I received an envelope in the mail from my dad. It was smooth, cool, and had a few sweat stains from being carried in a shirt pocket. The letter was printed out neatly on his new word processor with all of his characteristic typos in place and the margins filled with last minute thoughts. It contained his memories of the day I was born and the events of my first year. I read parts of it aloud at a birthday dinner. Now it has a few tear stains as well. The pen is indeed mightier than we perhaps think.
Copyright Sojourners Magazine Sep/Oct 1998