You’ve got mail; not really, though

PHOTO: Mariya Chorna, Flickr CC-BY

Every day, we check the mail. In fact, when my wife and I drive home from work she will always say, “I wonder if we got any good mail,” about 0.4 miles from our mailbox. She’s as reliable as Google Maps. Maybe more so.

The answer is typically, “no.” The mail is usually boring. Credit card offers and fundraising appeals. Coupon books designed to spin away in the wind like maple seeds. During elections, the daily post becomes a study in photoshopped fear-mongering. So much heavy stock paper and ink telling us who not to vote for.

Every once in a while we get a check. More often, it’s a bill. I don’t know why getting the mail remains such an important part of our day.

Perhaps it’s because we remember letters.

According to a CBS News poll taken this fall, most Americans haven’t sent a handwritten letter through the mail in more than five years. I can’t say that’s particularly surprising. I’ve only sent a handful of letters over the past couple years, mostly to older people who don’t have e-mail or tucked into books that I was sending to friends or colleagues.

Sometimes I get books with letters attached. I read the letter before tucking it back into the book, which I then place on a pile of books that I might read someday. Not today, though.

I’m reminded that I grew up during a fascinating period of transition. I was probably from the last generation whose parents were guilted into buying a set of encyclopedias from a door-to-door salesman “so your son could go to college one day.” Meantime, my generation was first to use the internet in high school. I remember them wheeling the special PCs outfitted with network cables into the school library.

As such, I might have been the last awkward teenager to request a girl’s mailing address along with her phone number. See, before cell phones, calling a girl meant getting past her parents. It took time and lots of painful small talk to work up to telling her how you really feel. So, I sent one of my first great crushes a lengthy letter. She was the most exotic of female creatures, a girl from another school.

I crafted this letter in the basement like a pipe bomb. To me, it was just as important and twice as dangerous. Every word was considered and reconsidered. I tried and then abandoned my terrible cursive writing for clear block lettering that passed for legible.

Then I wrote out the envelop, with special care given to the return address. I dwelled on the sharp lines and luscious curves of her name before dutifully recording her proper ZIP code.

When it was ready, I affixed the stamp and walked my letter out to the mailbox. I raised the flag, as if to claim the future for love. Watching from the kitchen I saw the mail carrier pick up the letter and lower the flag. Then a small clock started ticking in my mind.

It would be late that night that the letter would reach Duluth. Overnight, my precious envelope would spin through the machine and drop into a box designated for the same ZIP code I had earlier transcribed. The next day, the letter would be placed in a truck bound for her hometown.

Perhaps that day, or maybe the one after, the letter would wind its way down her road on its way to her family’s mailbox. Now I am imaging her opening the box, retrieving my letter, running with her hair blowing in the spring breeze as she flung herself into her family’s split-level, up the stairs, ensconcing herself in her bedroom which smells faintly of lilacs.

Keep in mind, days are passing. I am getting up, going to school, eating, drinking, working, and going back to bed. The dull ruts of life’s routine grow deeper.

She’s writing a letter back, I told myself. There’s no doubt. In fact, if she wrote a letter that very night it might only be three days before I get it. Three days later I run to the box. No letter.

That’s OK. She wanted it to be just right. She must have sent it the next day.

Tomorrow, no letter. She must be really busy. A week later, I worried that she had joined the French Foreign Legion. Girls sometimes do that.

Finally, one glorious day, she sent me a letter. It was a lovely small envelope matched to honest-to-god stationary. STATIONARY! I opened the envelope and inhaled deeply, hoping to smell lilacs and swearing that I did, even though it was probably just the strange pink ink she was so fond of using.

Her letter wasn’t as long as mine. Not as personal. Friendly, but noncommittal. Ah, perhaps my subtle clues had eluded her. I would need to write another letter.

And so this paper dance repeated, all through the long months of teenage summer and well into the fall. Alas, her mutual love would elude me, a fact that today’s teenagers would have deduced from two or three unanswered text messages.

Just a couple years later, a combination of letters and college e-mails would unite me with the woman who would become my wife. She printed out every e-mail and saved it in a box we still have. They are almost like letters.

I suppose the most important thing letters provided was patience. Short of, “the redcoats are coming,”or “your pants split in the back,” few messages are as urgent as we imagine. In fact, many of our high speed communications today would benefit from being crafted more slowly.

But there’s no stopping the new. I keep chasing “inbox zero” like dreams of a perpetual motion machine or wrinkle-free pants. The little ones and zeroes keep multiplying, pumping messages into my brain like a high pressure hose into a tiny rubber ball meant for children.

A text will never be as good as a letter. So tomorrow we will check the mail. Maybe then I will find a letter.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Jon Ofjord says

    That certainly brings back some memories. Just a few weeks ago a friend showed me a letter I had written to her over 50 years ago. The thing that struck me the most was my handwriting. It was so much neater and more legible back then. I only write reminders to myself now, other than an occasional note of explanation with gift once in a while. This is just another lost art and experience universal to those of a certain age.

  2. Kathleen Jokela says

    Dear Aaron,
    I know you’re a very busy man. But if you’re looking for a penpal or just an occasional missive in the mail,I’m your girl. Actually old lady,but you get what I mean. I have enough stationary, envelopes and return address labels to last for the next few decades. As my hands will probably only hold up for about five years,let’s get started soon. Patience is for those who have the time.

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