The comments below sparked by the post, "Email is for old people," reminded me of a short piece about writing letters that I wrote a few years ago. While cleaning up our children's playroom, I found a trunkful of long, beautifully written letters, one for nearly every other day of the 1967-68 school year. During one of the most tumultuous times in US history, the letter-writers, including this very scribe, kept track of events. I got thinking about the loss of this lovely and very personal means of communication and wrote "Letters from Oxford."
Letters from Oxford
The girls had been gone for some years when my husband and I finally decided to tackle the erstwhile playroom. He said it couldn't be done.
Where Legos, Crayolas, and numberless theatre performances once composted into piles of guilt — "Let's clean the playroom," I would enthuse to two little girls, already adept at procrastination — now there were boxes stacked on crates — of books, projects, photos, clothes, and . . . letters.
While Jeff sorted, tossed, carted, and grumbled, I sat transfixed by the interior of the trunk that had gone with me to boarding school, college, and across the Atlantic for my junior year abroad. Within this treasure chest were 151 letters, written over a year that began in September 1967, a near-daily history recorded in communication from roommates and friends, boyfriends real and imaginary, professors and administrators, and my mother and miscellaneous relatives.
They say, and they are right, that email is not private. Send an email to a friend and I'm exposed. The new technology can snatch my secret addiction to Cherry Garcia Frozen Yogurt and link it to my professed dairy-free diet then use it to prove my hypocritical tendencies. Yes, it can lose me deals and turn me into a fool. What it can't do is tangibly capture who I really am.
You might think I prefer pen and paper to clicks and pixels. Not me. I've been online so long that, to my horror, ten years ago, I got a call from a Newsweek reporter following up on the tip that I was "the oldest woman online." I was 47.
I love computers, adore my Blackberry. We were the first on our block with cable modems. I send hundreds, maybe thousands, of emails by the month, delete several times that number more — "Subject: Wondedrful Phara macty;" "Subject: STRICTLY PERSONAL;" "Subject: I'm coming home Friday" (ooops, a real one). Eudora streams my correspondence by, neatly parsing messages by their "From:" lines, storing them in appropriate folders, supposedly for posterity. The rest goes to Trash and so goes my history.
In our house, we've easily gone through 10 generations of computers and my email from 1981, stored on an 8-inch Iomega cartridge whose player long since was donated to a socially responsible computer drive, is for all practical purposes gone.
Thirty years from now, I will not paw through my electronic files as I do this trunkful of memories, savoring letters from my roommate Sylvia, whose junior year in Germany, is neatly transcribed on wafer-thin blue airmail sheets, or the wild postcard from Ruthie, welcoming me back to the US while she stayed in England, or the never-ending appeals from my mother to write, paling against the encyclopedic correspondence from me that she kept organized by date, rich fertilizer for my therapeutic garden.
There it is: a history of my world at Oxford University, 1967-68, sandwiched between the Summer of Love and the eruptions on campuses from Berkeley to Columbia, from London to Madrid. The escalation of the war, Johnson "resigning," the draft and its reactions, the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. There too is my passage into adulthood, turning 21 at The Trout, the romantic pub on the outskirts of Oxford, limned by the Thames and inhabited by peacocks, escorted there via motorcycle by the man who 30 years later would be cleaning the playroom with me.
Sylvia's first book, a best-seller, won Oscars as a film. I last "saw" Ruthie on her TV cooking show. As for me, every day I type another letter, piecing together the persisting puzzle of those times. When the printer asks me for the number of copies, I hit "2" so that my daughters, older now than I was then, can discover in their children's playrooms a gift from the past.