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In the Whirled: The written letter — altered but not dead

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

During the past several decades, the medium of written communication has changed, but it is still as valuable as ever as a tool for connection.

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When I married into the Lewis family, I became part of a family tradition known as the weekly family letter. Each family (and there were a lot of families) sent around a regular update. This is how we learned about new church callings, new babies, small moments and big events. It’s also how I memorized the names of my husband’s 10 living aunts and uncles and his 66 first cousins.

My own family doesn’t write family letters, but while I was in college, my dad sent me a weekly newspaper clipping, perhaps from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, something he thought I would find interesting. Attached was a small note with a brief family update and a hello.

It took me a while to realize that the weekly letter wasn’t about the article. The correspondence was my dad’s way of staying connected and letting me know he loved me. I still have those notes, tucked away in a large manila envelope under my bed.

During the past several decades, the medium of written communication has changed, but it is still as valuable as ever as a tool for connection.

Outside of the LDS faith, many people find it strange that full-time missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can only call home twice a year. Certainly there is the concern for distraction in calling home too often.

What we don’t talk about much is the benefit of the correspondence that does happen. Very few (if any) teenagers these days correspond by letter until they get out on missions. The written exchange that happens on a mission does several things: It helps the missionary create a recorded history, and it is an intimate way in which the missionary can stay connected to his or her family.

Finally, there is power in putting our thoughts into written form. Writing forces us to slow down. It gives both the giver and the receiver a moment to pause and reflect, something we miss out on in the immediacy of talking. Writing is what allows us to step away from ourselves. Each sentence is a journey. As someone who makes a living from the written word, I find the outcome similar to meditation.

Of course, times have changed. The stamped letter has given way to electronic correspondence. We’ve seen the rise of the blog, which in many ways serves as an open letter to the world. My dad mentioned the other day that he sends a daily text to my youngest sister. He’s always been good at meeting his children where they need it most.

And my husband’s grandmother, now in her 90s, sent out last week what she announced as her last family letter. She has written nearly every week since 1962. She concluded with these words, “For Lo! These many years, I have written weekly letters to each child as they went to college, missions, military, marriage or just away from home. My typewriter began filling with carbon paper and less legible copies. Soon I had to resort to messy, 'purple ditto' which most of you know nothing of. Finally we had access to lithograph then hurray! The Xerox! And that’s what most of you get nowadays!

“It became a habit! It held us close as a family! It was our bond! And now after 52 years I can actually say I still have children who write weekly to their families and a few grandchildren also have the tradition. It’s lovingly called their journal or history.”

I can attest to the bond I see in the Lewis family. These weekly letters have not only helped that grandmother stay connected to family, but she has drawn upon them to write her own personal history, which stands at eight volumes.

In the scriptures Nephi records, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God” (2 Nephi 25:23). Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that famous German writer of "Faust," said, “Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.” I think Goethe was on to something.

Whether we carve it in metal, put it down with pen and ink or tap away at a screen, whether we write in loopy verse, chicken scratch or all caps, I hope the letter, however changed, continues to connect us with those we love.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com

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