Somewhere, in the boxes that I have moved from one address to another, are small packages of summers past. Letters from my parents. Letters from school friends. Love letters. Private history wrapped neatly in rubber bands.
Most of them are, by now, more than 20 summers old. The datelines remind me of camp, college, trips. They also remind me of my father's humor, the rhythms of my mother's daily life, the code words of adolescent friendships -- S.W.A.K., sealed with a kiss -- the intimacy of the young.
My friends, my family and I rarely mail our thoughts anymore. The mailman brings more catalogues than correspondence to our homes. The letters that come through our mail slot are mostly addressed in robotype. The stamps we buy are to go on bills.
We direct-dial now. Spoiled by the instant gratification and the ease of the phone, we talk. The telephone call has replaced the letter in our lives nearly as completely as the car has replaced the cart.
When we were kids, I remember, long distance was reserved for announcements. The operator was almost an evil omen. If we had called from camp or campus our parents would have answered the phone with "What's wrong?" Today, our own children, the products of Sesame Street numbers and telephone-company technology, have grown up knowing area codes before they knew addition. They bounce intercontinental calls off satellites . . . just to say "Hello."
I am not railing against this progress. A Frequent Dialer with the bills to prove it, I often choose the give and take, the immediacy of the phone. I accept charges from children with an uneconomical glee. A friend and I, separated by hundreds of miles, have declared our phone bills "cheaper than therapy." It's good to hear a voice. But it isn't the same.
Sometimes I think that the telephone call is as earthbound as daily dialogue, while a letter is an exchange of gifts. On the telephone you talk; in a letter you tell. There is a pace to letter writing and reading that doesn't come from the telephone company but from our own inner rhythm.
We live mostly in the high-tech, reach- out-and-touch-someone modern world. Communication is an industry. It makes demands of us. We are expected to respond as quickly as computers. A voice asks a question across the ocean in a split second and we are supposed to formulate an answer at this high-speed rate of exchange.
But we cannot, blessedly, "interface" by mail. There is leisure and emotional luxury in letter-writing. There are no obvious silences to anxiously fill. There are no interruptions to brook. There are no nuances and tones of voice to distract.
A letter doesn't take us by surprise in the middle of dinner, or intrude when we are with other people, or ambush us in the midst of other thoughts. It waits. There is a private space between the give and the take for thinking.
I have known lovers, parents and children, husbands and wives, who send each other letters from one room to another simply for the chance to complete a story of events, thoughts, feelings. I have known people who could not "hear" what they could read.
There is this advantage to slowing down the pace of communications. The phone demands a kind of simultaneous satisfaction that is as elusive in words as in sex. It's letters that let us take turns, let us sit and mull and say exactly what we mean.
Today we are supposed to travel light, to live in the moment. The past is, we are told, excess baggage. There is no question that the phone is the tool of these times. As fine and as ephemeral as a good meal.
But you cannot hold a call in your hands. You cannot put it in a bundle. You cannot show it to your family. Indeed there is nothing to show for it. It doesn't leave a trace. Tell me, how can you wrap a lifetime of phone calls in a rubber band for a summer's night when you want to remember?
c1985, Boston Globe Newspaper Company