Monday, April 17, 2023

Obituary for a Lost Art

Throughout millennia, she graced the lives of countless people. She made them laugh or weep, nod, grin, sigh with pleasure or burst into angry tears. She enabled relationships, re-kindled old ties, enlivened fading romances, mended broken ones, and broke off those not working. She helped clarify misunderstandings, heal emotional wounds, and declare allegiances.

There was something comforting, almost stately, about her presence. She gave dignity to the harshest of words, integrity to the ugliest situation. She was a constant that could be treasured over a lifetime and beyond. She might in a legacy scrapbook or even put on display in a museum. Conversely, she could be ordered out of one’s sight with a venom that could send her disappearing into the wind in tiny pieces or fiery smoke. Perhaps most often her gentle presence helped transform tumult and fury into mellow acceptance. Tears helped blend her sad words into soft blurs, and her funny words could be repeated or recalled over and over by the simple act of referring to her.

Taking the time to frame written words around an experience can be healing and productive for the person communicating. Rarely does a cutesy cartoon overlaid with “Thanks” convey personal appreciation of a memorable evening at a friend's house. Never does a somber “Sorry to learn of your bereavement” on a preprinted card come close to giving grief the same dignity as do the heartfelt words from the soul and the pen of a communicating friend. Nothing heals both the sender and recipient like a letter that can be held, wept over, laughed about, reread, and tucked away for a second reading later the same day, the next year, or even decades later. 

By the end of the twentieth century she was fading from view. Card companies were marketed to people in a hurry and thrived industry-wide as they stood in for her with cute sentiments and feelings, often expressed in simpleminded verse. As she aged into the twenty-first century, she noticeably  languished and withered from inattention--from not being needed anymore. Modern technology could have saved her, but no one thought to try or really cared. She ceased being glamorous, sexy. This senior monarch of communication faded into obsolescence. 

Tools eager to replace her appeared: Facebook, Twitter, email, Bluetooth. Smart phones and laptops using with Zoom and Teams, Facetime and What's App. Electronically delivered notes and cards proved to be the final blow. Through all these quicker, more immediate and easier options, she could not recover and ultimately met her Maker.

The Art of Letter Writing has passed. R.I.P.

Thursday, April 6, 2023


I have left this personal essay in tact, just as I wrote it, about a "non-event" that occurred almost sixteen years ago in 2007. Back then, I was sixty-seven years old and the grandmother of a one-year-old, a pre-schooler, and a grade-schooler. My husband was alive and we lived in our Lake Forest Park home. Oh, how my existence has changed since then! And yet . . . it still contains a basic truth about my life. 


I’m crazy about my recently acquired clothesline. It’s the central-pole type, the kind you use while standing in one place and twirling it to reach the next empty line. Loosely categorized as compact and portable, its arms fold up like an umbrella that’s blown inside-out, making it look like an oddly shaped lightening rod or radio antenna when it’s not in use. Then, when it’s needed, a snap of its latch brings it cascading down to enfold the grateful laundress—me—in its aluminum and rope arms.

My husband reminded me this morning, as I joyfully bounced into the kitchen after a bout of hanging sheets outside, that forty years ago I was equally thrilled to get my first electric clothes-dryer. With three children at the time—two in cloth diapers and one who’d graduated to nighttime-only diapers—I was hanging up laundry year-round, in wet weather and dry. Four or five times a week I cajoled the children into accompanying me either into the yard or down the cellar stairs where they played and I worked, snapping clothespins as efficiently as an assembly worker. In the summer our clothes smelled wonderful; in the winter they were just stiff, brittle garments, towels as scratchy as sandpaper and socks resizing themselves in the hold of capricious fasteners. When we had finally managed to save enough money for an electric dryer, I felt giddy from its precious by-product—newly acquired time.

My “new” umbrella-style clothesline originally belonged to our son who has moved to Canada with his wife and baby. He had planned to consign it to a thrift shop along with myriad household encumbrances, but when I expressed  interest in it, he offered it to me as though it were a bowl of potato chips. “You want it? Help yourself.” As I drove it to my house, I planned where to situate it, much like I would if I had just purchased a new shrub. What corner of the yard would be most convenient for hauling laundry baskets? Which was the sunniest spot?

Since its installation, my hubby and I are sleeping like babies between line-dried sheets, our nostrils drinking in the scent of linens hung outside. That fragrance—sunshine-drench—is unmistakable and inimitable, no matter how hard detergent and room-freshener manufacturers try to create it artificially. When the rainy season sets in for good, we will resort to the electric dryer, but until then I am hunting down things to launder like a madwoman, just so I can hang them outside to dry. The cool edge of autumn air, the warmth of direct sunlight, and the fluttering of maple leaves combine with this utilitarian task to make me feel inexplicably happy.

As I stood out this morning, pinning up sheets and dishtowels, I found myself thinking how this folding apparatus loosely parallels my experience as the mother of adult children. Sometimes I am useful, sometimes superfluous. At a time of need, I spread out my arms to accept the cares, burdens, joys of my offspring. During the times when I am not needed, I stand with arms figuratively folded up, extended in yearning and resolve, prayer and well-wishes. My four adult children are scattered across the continent, but they can press me into service on a moment’s notice by the push of a telephone keypad. I like to think I have no rainy season. My arms are available anytime.