By the time 1962 finally rolled around I was sitting in the front row of Mrs. Grady’s class learning the proper way to address a business letter. I had already learned left from right, could tell time, tie my own shoes and best of all, I could read.
Now we were practicing the precise manner in which one conducted a correspondence. I wasn’t sure why we were learning how to write a business letter in the third grade but the prescribed salutation remains etched in my brain: “Dear Sir or Madam.”
Mrs. Grady ran a tight ship. Entering her classroom meant structure and discipline and even the few troublemakers who later went on to lifelong careers as hardened criminals dared not disrupt that class. Her wire-rimmed glasses and grim countenance set the tone for that entire school year and when she described Lee surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant we all assumed it was her own personal recollection.
Like virtually all the things we had recently learned it wasn’t long before we were putting this skill to good use. We were always collecting box tops and Bazooka Joe comics and sending away for all sorts of free prizes. After chewing gum nonstop for two years, I was finally able to save up enough of those waxy comic strips to send away for a free microscope. It wasn’t much of a microscope but I still remember the wonderful feeling of waiting weeks for it to arrive in the mail.
The year 2009 took me by surprise in the form of the 17-year-old member of our Vineyard household asking if I could help him address an envelope. It’s funny how such a simple request can trigger emotions ranging from complete incredulity to feelings of downright superiority.
“I thought they taught that in the third grade,” I replied archly. In return I received that familiar look of total exasperation.
When I recounted the story at the post office a few days later my worst fears were confirmed.
“We see a lot of that here,” the woman weighing my package told me, shaking her head sadly. “Plenty of kids put the addressee information where the return address is supposed to go and don’t understand why it even matters when we correct them.”
As I left the post office it suddenly occurred to me that not long after I opted to start using e-mail I suddenly stopped receiving letters. Even people with whom I had corresponded for many years were now forwarding me jokes or chain letters that promised lifelong happiness or at the very minimum, immediate wealth. The basic human need to keep in contact with others had been displaced, cast aside by something new called social networking and while I still knew how to address a letter, it was a skill for which I no longer had much use.
I thought back on my life as a series of letters sent and received and it made me wonder if the younger generation would ever know what it feels like to write an actual letter, to pour their feelings onto a printed page and then have to wait the agonizing days or weeks for a reply. Of course there were the times when a much-anticipated reply never did arrive. Would they ever know the bittersweet feeling of waiting for the mailman to come day after day before being handed an envelope that carried their own name written in the familiar hand of someone they loved?
My fondest memories must seem quaint by today’s standards. It used to thrill me to write letters on flimsy airgram paper that you’d have to fold up, a form of postal origami, to create an envelope when you were overseas. It made you feel special and you chose your words carefully because of the importance they acquired when penned onto that delicate bit of gossamer. People hardly ever use the word overseas much anymore.
Would young people growing up in this new milieu ever know the pure unmitigated joy you felt when you walked up to the poste restante window of a strange post office halfway around the world to collect their mail? One minute you’d be a lonely and dejected traveler, a virtual stranger in some remote flyblown town and the next minute you’re sitting in a café drinking sweet tea, nearly moved to tears — not by the pungent smell of burning dung in the air but by the handwritten words that had been penned by someone you missed terribly.
So I showed the boy how to address the envelope and resisted any further temptation to lecture or feel superior over an entire generation. It wasn’t his fault. The world had changed when I wasn’t looking. You no longer had to wait more than a few seconds for a reply nor did you have to reflect on what it was you wanted to say because that too no longer mattered. A short list of acronyms that appear out of the ether with a half-life of mere seconds would happily suffice for all communications great or small. The full range of human emotions had been compressed, boiled down to a few symbols. I couldn’t help but wonder how people would be able to hold on to anything in this new age that relies on a lifeless and impersonal shorthand that vanishes faster than disappearing ink. What would they save in bundles held together by old rubber bands in the back of desk drawers and in empty cigar boxes if not the words of those they once knew and loved?
I found a blank sheet of paper and in my best hand I carefully and deliberately wrote out the words Dear Sir or Madam in its proper place near the top, left hand margin of the page. With a silent apology to Mrs. Grady, I crumpled it into a small ball and threw it into the trash.
Robert Skydell lives in Chilmark and writes occasionally for the Gazette.