Can you remember the last time you wrote someone a letter? Maybe it was a
college middle-school sweetheart, or you were in elementary school and responding to your Christmas and birthday presents. It’s possible you’ve just come back from your honeymoon, and you and your partner are grinding out thank-you notes for the presents. Or maybe you’re penning letter after letter to someone you loved and lost. You probably never even sent those letters (I hope you didn’t—real life is not The Notebook).
But chances are you may not remember what it feels like to sit down with a nice desk in front of you, some loose-leaf paper, a pen and only a slight idea what you’re going to say. It feels pretty good, especially if you’ve been popping Adderall, smoking cigs and going about your daily life without any time to reflect. Writing a letter is a nice way to unwind and let the obtrusiveness of jobs, commutes and social obligations fall by the wayside. Who should you write? Well, how about your grandma or grandpa?
Your grandparents, if you’re lucky enough to have any still alive, came of age in an era when there was nothing but the telephone, the telegram and USPS conveyance. One of those modes died and another might not be around much longer. (FedEx, for the record, was invented in the early ’70s.) Some of your grandparents are happily on Twitter; some are grooving on Facebook; some don’t quite get texting yet. Your grandparent v. technology mileage will vary—but nearly all remember the delights of physical mail delivery in a way that people born in the ’80s just can’t understand. Here are some tips for writing your letter.
First thing, make sure you can still write. A lot of my friends have the penmanship of a doctor with cataracts, but with a little struggle the print letters you struggled to perfect in grade school should come back to you. Don’t even think about longhand. If you’re like me and trend towards a mash-up of cursive and print, then make sure you’re cognizant of your scribbling shortcomings (we all have them—my writing is also cramped). Don’t cop out and type it, even on a typewriter.
This is not the great American novel. Don’t overdo it. Your grandparents come from a time when people routinely read books and newspapers every day, and authors were famous regardless of their inclusion in Oprah’s Book Club. But just because their generation was more literary-minded doesn’t mean you need to write a Nick Adams vignette within your letter (although a fishing story might make your grandpa happy). Keep it simple and to the point, the main focus being your love for them.
I can’t comment for everyone’s grandparents, since they’re all different, but there is one trait they almost all share: Loving their grandchildren. That unconditional love may exist because they’re untrammeled by the vestiges of your adolescence (unless they raised you, in which case it might be more complicated). You’re their grandchild, so minor indiscretions are ignored or forgotten. No matter how many tattoos I got, or piercings, or how many times I dyed my hair growing up, my grandma always loved when I stayed with her and thought I was an angel even when the rest of the family did not.
Out of deference to this unbending love, try to focus on topics in your letter that will bring them pleasure. This is not a creative-writing exercise; the point is to let them know you’re thinking about them. Bring up the last time you were together. Focus on something you know they’ve always loved. For me it was the Miller Light that always sat next to my grandma at the dining-room table. A few years back someone ordered her a microbrew at a restaurant in the Bay Area, and she spat it out and asked the shocked waiter, “Can I get a real beer?” (I’m looking forward to Macro Brew jokes.) Sitting at your desk, grasping for memories long since misplaced, you’ll be surprised by how sweet and genuine these recollections may be. Your grandparents may have forgotten some of them too, and it will be a nice reminder for both of you.
Once you’ve successfully penned your letter, now it’s time to send it. Do you even have their address? Try to get it without calling your folks or a relative that lives nearby them. I’m assuming that for many of you this letter will be meant as a surprise (my first one was), so send it like you mean it and without the aid of others.
If you’re unfamiliar with how postage works these days, you should know that you now can purchase first-class stamps, “forever stamps,” that will always be the correct postage. Declining revenues mean the cost of sending mail is rising almost as fast your subway fare. These special stamps will always work, and your grandparent will get a letter from you, and you have no idea how happy this will make them.
My only remaining grandparent is reaching the end of her life. A lot of people would be uncomfortable with this notion, but not my grandma. She’s tougher than my family, and me, and she wouldn’t want any of us to shrink from the natural cycle of life. I’d like to think these letters remind her of all that she’s given to me (and others) over the years. She’s 60-plus years older than I am, and I’ll never be able to thank her enough for all the wisdom and humor and guidance she’s passed on to me. By writing to her about joyful memories we’ve shared in the past, I try to give her some joy and amusement in the present. And that’s what all of us want—regardless of age.
If you have a grandparent alive, send them a letter too. You won’t regret it.
Spencer Lund thinks you should write a letter to any grandparents you have left.