Once upon a time, people sat down to write letters. Oh, the pleasure in choosing the right stationery (or maybe just grabbing a sheet of notebook paper), searching through a cluttered desk for a reliable pen (black ink or blue? or perhaps purple or green?) and addressing the envelope just so in preparation for its journey to the lucky recipient. When rifling through the daily mail, whose heart doesn’t leap at the sight of a personally addressed envelope, even if it is just a birthday card from your dentist? (Actually, never mind. Those are kind of a letdown. Sorry, dentists.)

Now, we all know that email, texting, blogging and social networking have all but overtaken the good old U.S. Postal Service. In its defense, modern communication is fast and convenient. Lots of young people don’t even use email anymore — they prefer other electronic alternatives. But I, for one, love to write — the old-fashioned way. I love the feel of an easy, free-flowing pen as it scribbles over my college-ruled notebook paper. The modern methods are cool for quick correspondence, but there is something special and timeless about hard copy.

My enjoyment of writing has made me curious about the communication between today’s missionaries and their families. For the past several years, missionaries and their families have communicated via email. But back in the mid-1990s, when I served my mission in Venezuela, email was not yet widely used. Our correspondence was still the thousands-of-years-old kind. And, oh, the exhilaration of “pouch,” the mail system for missionaries! Bulky envelopes, then the quick ripping and unfolding pages of comforting words written in familiar script.

Recently, as I was poking around my parents’ house one evening, I discovered a bundle of my missionary letters. I was fascinated. Here was this important era of my life, all wrapped up in a rubber band. I tore into a few, wishing I had time to plant myself on the floor and review each and every one. My letters home were stuffed with various tones and content: light sarcasm, enthusiastic testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, displays of my hard-earned Spanish, honest opinions about my (mostly lovable) companions, outrageous and exaggerated descriptions of our exploits to shock my parents.

My handwriting told the stories as well: messy and loopy indicated hurried or upbeat or silly, while my compact script relayed the more serious and spiritual experiences, all on whatever paper I could scrounge up. And don’t discount the envelopes! The tacky Spanish stickers, multi-colored pens and silly names in the return address all screamed personality. I wonder, will the current generation of missionaries be able to convey all of their enthusiasm, loneliness, spiritual growth, familial teasings and inside jokes via email, as opposed to paper and envelope? If not, writers and readers of missionary mail are missing out on a lot.

Electronic communication is pretty wonderful — it’s fast, cheap and usually convenient. But is it as appreciated? Part of the delight in receiving paper mail is the anticipation. Those letters, having passed through strange hands and places over several days or weeks, are gifts to be treasured. They are something tangible to hold and smell and read and reread. And so I became curious: Are the emails that today’s missionary parents receive simply read and then discarded? Are these important communications being saved, printed and preserved?

Which is the preferred method of communication for missionary parents — email or snail mail? I took an informal poll of some friends and ward members, and found that overwhelmingly, email is an easier and preferable way to communicate. Generally, missionaries are allowed to email their families (not friends) once a week on their preparation days.

“Emails are such an easier way to communicate than hard-copy letters,” said Kaye Robison, who has had three sons serve missions. “The information you share and the questions you ask are up-to-date and current.”

Karen Waugh, whose son is serving in South Carolina, said, “I think (email) is fabulous. At least you’re getting a weekly communication; if you don’t get an email, then you really start to worry.”

Janene Hansen, who had sons who served in the Philippines, said that she never received regular letters from them, which was “very unsettling.” She said, “We never really communicated but rather carried on separate dialogues because it took so long to receive a letter on both ends.” Hansen added that she likes email best because she can hear from her missionaries on a regular basis and know that they are safe.

Another advantage to missionary email is not paying the postage for foreign mail, Robison pointed out. “We can also forward (our missionary’s) email to other family members, our bishop and friends who have asked to be kept current on how he is doing.”

Waugh added that she likes communicating with her missionary via email because “I get a (digital) copy of my letter that I just wrote him, and that’s nice to see. I tell him about my week, so it’s like a journal entry for myself.”

Some missions allow missionaries to call home on Skype (video chatting via computer) on Christmas and Mother’s Day. Rex Waugh enjoyed Skyping with his missionary son on Christmas Day. “It was fun to see him and his expressions while we were talking, versus just talking on the phone. It was nice to see that he looked good,” he said.

For those wanting to write to a missionary, mission rules generally state that those outside the family can respond through hard-copy letters only.

1 comment on this story

Many missionary parents print their missionaries’ emails and save them in a binder. Additionally, Robison prints out copies of her and her husband's emails to their missionaries and saves them in a separate binder to give their missionary at the end of his mission.

Hooray for these organized parents and other family members, printing and preserving their missionaries' musings. But hopefully they are receiving some snail mail letters as well, with tacky stickers decorating the envelopes.

Megan Gladwell is an Indiana native and mother of four. She blogs at bookclub41.blogspot.com and can be reached at mlgladwell@gmail.com.