The importance of handwritten letters was brought home to me in a very powerful way. In 2004, I finished my book manuscript entitled Soft Leadership for Hard Times. The book was almost ready to go to print when the editor called and said that I better check a reference because he was not sure if it was correct.
I thought I was finally finished with the project and was irritated about having to dig up an obscure citation. I reluctantly headed for the basement and started rummaging through boxes to find the research paper and the citation. I remember the date: September 23rd, just six months after Betsy died and two days before my birthday.
In my rummaging, I found a storage box that had been sealed for years. My curiosity got the best of me and I opened the box and began leafing through the materials and books when I came upon a black Allen Edmonds shoebox. Who could resist a black shoebox?
So I opened it and found a few old newspaper clippings, notes from friends, and mementos from celebrations and old business cards of mine. Then in the middle of the box, I found two card-sized envelopes and one folded letter in a ragged, partially torn envelope.
My curiosity was piqued. I opened the two card envelopes. To my utter shock and surprise, I found two birthday cards from Betsy that she had sent to me 11 years earlier. Two days before my birthday, and I received birthday cards from my deceased daughter, seemingly coming out of the cosmos and initiated by an inopportune phone call. As I sat alone in the dim light of the basement, my heart started racing. Synchronicity, I thought. My birthday in two days and I have in my hands two cards and a letter from Betsy. I broke down at this unexpected and precious gift from beyond the rational universe.
I sat there for a few stunned minutes and then opened the tattered envelope and found a letter written in 1989 by Betsy on this quaint University of Wisconsin “Bucky Badger” stationery. I was never more grateful for the letter writing lessons she learned from her grandmother and mother. This gift, six months after her death, was in my eyes, a true miracle.
The letter was a treasure. When I first received that letter over a decade ago, I never thought it would be the most valuable one of my life. I don’t really remember saving those cards and letters, but I’m glad I did. I have always been accused of being a bit of a pack rat that is ‘emotionally attached’ to things.
Almost every day since she died, I wished that I could magically speak to her one more time. I even scoured an old answering machine tape to see if I could find a remnant of her voice. The astounding thing about this letter was that for the first time since March 8th, the day before she died, I could hear her voice and sense her presence through her unique left-handed writing, complete with cross outs and the little tidbits she wrote vertically in the margins.
I clutched that letter to my chest and smelled the paper trying to get a whiff of her essence. But the years of storage and the musty passage of time evaporated any remnant of her scent.
Betsy’s vibrant spirit and personality, however, came alive in her handwriting, her distinctive expressions, and her buoyant attitude toward life itself. What a wonderful testament, I thought, for one human being to leave another. The gift of her fundamental nature and spirit in that letter was a true reflection of her soul – the best gift I have ever received on my birthday – or ever will.
With time the letters have become more and more valuable, tangible evidence that when someone is gone, love remains. A year before her death, Betsy sent a birthday card to Mary, a genuine and heart wrenching gift. If time on the planet was soon to end, a note like this is what we should write to people we love.
I love you very much. You’re my dearest friend. I appreciate so much the love and support you have always given me. I treasure the times we are able to spend together. Thank you for loving my daughter [Claire] so much—that is the best gift you have ever given me.
I love you,
Technology is so inadequate in capturing the essence of a person. Finding a digitized e-mail or Microsoft Word “document” could never match that handwritten letter with ‘Bucky Badger’ embossed on the stationery. While we contact people through technology, we certainly do not “connect” in a soulful, personal and earnest way. Too much is lost in the antiseptic digitization of our feelings.
The letter and cards from Betsy reminded me that spending some of our precious minutes in life writing a personal note or letter is a true act of love and is an altruistic expression of our caring and humanness towards others. As a consequence of her letter, I wrote a series of letters to my grandchildren about life, purpose, and meaning. These letters are a bit abstract for a five-year-old but I hope they will be meaningful in later years, particularly after I’m gone.