The art of letters will come to an end before A. D. 2000. I shall survive as a curiosity.
Carefully she descended the slippery redwood steps to place her most pressing handful into the rusted, stalwart shelter. Gently, she hoisted its tell-tale indicator. This was a ritual; for Molly Ellen McGraf, there was no denying that this very act possessed significance – perhaps even beyond the contents and eventual destinations. Pausing beneath the mist laden trees, she appeared to sense it more intensely. Recently, now more than ever, there were fewer and fewer replies – this strained absence was a wedge of diffidence and dismissiveness. Though it was evident Molly abhorred the tacit direction of fate, this young woman of Whidbey Island, across the Puget Sound from the grand city of Seattle, refused to cede to its intransient wiles.
On such a London-like gloomy February morning, in the clusters of canopies above, the ravens were landing on the thinnest of branches, cawing, as if insulting her from on high. Taunting her? she thought. Why do you resist? Why have you not jumped upon the proverbial hansom cab? She feared that nevermore would there be such an aesthetic and distinctive manner of proffering to one’s inner circles. The irony was not lost on me.
This was 1999.
If you will excuse the momentary intrusion, it was I who would come to be one of the first to prognosticate and articulate the reasoning behind the morbid, insidious transformation. Few paid me any heed. I was accustomed to that as exemplified by the blithe critiques of my contemporaries Yeats and Emerson. But I digress. I have observed that people of this generation crave instant gratification; if there is a shortcut through life’s wilderness, they take scythe to the brush. They had been groomed to shoot the insufferable things.
Pinpointing the exact moment when everything changed for Molly was not something she cared to ponder, be it weak nor weary. It was her affable, loquacious best friend, Nora Fairweather, who made the dubious decision. Whether conscious or inadvertent, their twenty-five years of friendship became tainted as if the dreaded snuff had overtaken their souls. Betrayal, it was, plain and simple. Molly stared at the quiet forest surrounding her. Was she remembering the painting on kindergarten easels, the intoxicating trysts with boys, those long shadows of their summers handcrafting their most intimate secrets, and that horrific afternoon of holding hands while Nora awaited the delicate procedure she kept from her parents? I could only presume.
Of this I was certain: A curious, though hardly quaint beast had been born, from a valley in the far reaches of Northern California. Like Edison and Westinghouse foisting upon society the unpredictable and perilous currents of electricity, computers, the internet, and the confounding email manufacturing would be the newest sword to the pen.
When Molly received the initial one, she was bereft. Clearly, its impudence and terse quality was unexpected, rendering her asunder. This was Nora. Ostensibly, for all due consideration, a sister-in-arms. Wrestling with her vehemence, ringing her up on the telephone might have been deemed as servile. A proud woman, a moral and just companion, Molly would act in a manner necessitating that the bar remained high.
She grasped her fountain pen, one in which I reveled and could only imagine what creations I could have crafted from such a fine instrument.
What followed was months of silence. Years previously, Nora married, and her intrepid spouse, a man of the military moved the family from posting to posting. For the women to sustain their bond, Nora insisted that Molly get “up to speed” and that would make it easier for her. Even those charming telephone booths were beginning to vanish; the masses held these cellular contraptions up to their ear as they strode through the streets or drove their vehicles. By that time, I had discerned that private conversations were now public displays. While waiting in line for coffee, one could overhear an individual discussing their recent laboratory results with their gynecologist. Or a husband speaking with his wife about what nappies to purchase. Yet most distressing of all was noticing the gadgets’ inherent distractibility. Ambling through crosswalks, a ludicrous ring interrupting a conversation with a friend, placing an infant in a pram while speaking. As I stated, immediate gratification. Why wait to speak with someone privately, when you can take the call while doing three other tasks at once. And should the individual on the other end of the call require full attention, what does one do when background banter is obvious?
Molly tried. Ubiquitous now, one found it at work, home, places of lodging, even in cafés and restaurants. If one more person asked her to shoot her one, she might scream and be gathered up and sent to a sanitorium. Elements of grammar, spelling and usage were assailed by a new and unfortunate lexicon. Featuring combinations of anagrams, slang, intentional misspelling, upper and lower-case letters being misrepresented, the King’s English was guillotined like Marie Antoinette.
Working as a bookkeeper in a small office on the island, Molly surrendered to the future. Living alone with her effusive black Labrador, their jaunts together along country lanes were the respite from the entanglement American culture demanded. Nora began with supplanting what had once been with “family moments.” Here, she featured vacations, birthdays, lost teeth, new homes, seemingly idyllic lives. On Molly’s birthday, Nora no longer consistently remembered. Last year was in part, the death knell: When she turned thirty, Nora had shared a smiling face, some ridiculous smattering of acronyms, a heart, and no name.
On the refrigerator were photographs of the women as young girls – perhaps eight or nine. The impressions were rectangular, with white borders, much more clarity than those of my era. Such elation pervaded these memories. Long braided hair, metal in their teeth, green party hats, and something called a “Space Needle.”
Does what we have eventually transform into what we had? I could be sure that what Molly was contemplating was the discomfiture of evanescence. It was during those years that much of what she was ruing today had been so much a part of their lives.
Then, the engine, a familiar and comforting starting and stopping. From the kitchen window, she waved excitedly to Mr. Hanover. Stately, in his fifties, he returned her gesture as he removed the mail letters from the box, pushing down the red flag in one motion. Leaning forward, she strained to see as the postal carrier separated a small bundle for her residence.
Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Fog does tend to burn off here, but rain is a constant presence in the Pacific Northwest. Without warning, clouds begin to pummel her roof, clattering on the decking, rattling the mailbox. Failing to impede, Molly zipped on her rain slicker and held fast to the railing as she descended.
Ads. Requests for charitable donations. Credit card companies offering loans. Bills. Hunched over the cozy dinette table, sipping tea, she vows to continue writing letters. For there would always be the sound of the pen across the page. The crisp folds of the stationery. The seal and the stamp. She prefers pastels. Artistic, they are. Cursive writing of address and return address. Stamp placed perfectly in the top right corner. A lavender sticker on the reverse. All of a piece. A piece . . . of art.
I’ll shoot you an email.
One has the poetry of patience, the narrative of a novel, the grace and generosity of time.
The other, convenience, lethargy, the send button, and soullessness.
I must take my leave now. Molly shall be fine. Though it may not appear this way, people will continue to write letters. They are the David to emails’ Goliath. Do not presume to think that the occasional Luddite nature of our species will not at some point once again hanker for simplicity in interaction, contemplation in communication, a reinvigoration of presence in lieu of distraction.
Only this and nothing more.