IAN, my 11-year-old, went away to summer camp last weekend. He didn't go very far away, and he won't be gone for very long, but I made sure that stuffed down in his backpack, alongside the flashlight, the Swiss army knife, and the 10 pairs of socks, was a stamped envelope. We went and bought a pad of paper and a pen, and I told him that I expected a letter before the end of his first week. I also let him know that I would write to him regularly.
Three days later I sat down to write Ian a letter. There was a tremendous thrill in composing the first letter I have ever addressed to my son. Because it was late in the evening when I started and I was tired, I considered for just a moment using the computer to write it more quickly, but I caught myself. "When he's grown and gone off to wherever, and I'm writing him for the hundredth time, I'll type the letter. This first one should be in my handwriting."
The letter wrote itself. I told him about where I'd been and what I'd done in the past three days. I described the antics of our cats. I told him how much I missed him and what I imagined he was doing. I asked lots of questions about the camp. I even slipped in a little (but only a little) fatherly advice at the end on how to have a successful camp experience. I signed it, made sure it was in the mailbox for the next morning's pickup and began my anxious wait for his reply.
I want my son to write letters. I want him to stop and consider what he wants to say to me about his life when we're apart. I am hoping he'll come to know that special meditative state that I have cherished for years, the state in which you reflect on your recent experiences and choose the ones that best reveal what's on your mind and in your heart, and try to describe them. I am hoping he will discover, as I have, the side of his character that exists only in letters.
A friend of mine employs the same rebuke whenever I have not written him for a time: "The epistolary art is falling into decay!" I'm afraid he's right. It always comes as a surprise when I discover how many letters people used to write -- that is, how much writing was a part of their daily lives. Did they actually have more time to write than we do? Perhaps they just "spent" time differently. On a recent visit to Monticello, I learned that Thomas Jefferson actually wrote several thousand letters, but he seems to have managed to find time for other significant endeavors as well.
Perhaps people simply considered letter writing more necessary in the pre-telephone era. For example, Vincent Van Gogh was always writing his brother Theo to ask for money, since Vincent was too busy painting to earn any. However, any reader will quickly perceive that Vincent's letters served a much more important purpose: They were as expressive of his energy, his imagination, and his passionate love of the visual world as the paintings they described. It was only after pages about the sunlight in the south of France, or the peasants' faces, or his work with Paul Gauguin that Vincent mentioned in a line or two that he was several months behind in his rent.
As for passionate love, what a delicate dimension letters must have added to the rituals of courtship! My mother once told me that she had found all her father's letters to her mother in the years before they married. She didn't just throw them away; she burned them. "They were very passionate," she explained. "I really didn't think anybody else should read them." It isn't hard to imagine their effect on my grandmother.
Today I received my reply from Ian; I tore open the envelope and read it to my family. His deplorable handwriting didn't bother me a bit. The letter was only a page, one long paragraph really, unfocused, with run-on sentences galore. But he crammed into it the camp routines, some special events and his feeling of pride in what he has accomplished so far. Most important, the writing had style: There were Ian's idioms and even a typical Ian joke. A little part of Ian was on that page.
After dinner, my youngest son James picked up the letter and sat down on the couch to read it himself. James is just learning to read, so of course I had to sit beside him to help him along. When we finished the letter, Jamie commented, "I can't wait till I'm old enough to go away to summer camp."
And I can't wait to get his first letter.
Andrew McBee writes from Baltimore.