Why You Should Write To Your Mother

Jul 21 2011 Published by under (if) Elder (why) Care, Geekalicious, How to Grow a Zuska

A thousand years ago, when I went off to college, my mother wrote me letters, because there was no such thing as text messaging.  Why, there wasn't even any email, if you can believe it!!! She wrote real, actual letters, sometimes as many as three in a week.  "You've got mail" meant there was a paper envelope lying in a physical mailbox.  I got mail, and I got packages from home, and I was the envy of everyone on my dorm floor.

Z-Mom wrote to me, and I wrote to her.  As I moved on to graduate school, and then all over the place for various and sundry postdocs and other jobs, I continued writing letters to her.  During these years, "long distance" phone bills became an irrelevance as competition introduced one rate for unlimited calling; tethered phones evolved into cordless things; cell phones appeared and then became ubiquitous and then turned into smart phones and now threaten to make what we came to call the "land line" obsolete.  Z-Mom and I always talked on the phone a lot, more after it got cheaper to do so, but even with phone calls, we never stopped writing to each other. PC's, of course, also appeared on the scene during this time - my senior thesis was typed on an electronic typewriter, my dissertation on a Macintosh Plus - and they too got cheaper, faster, and ubiquitous. And email came along with them.

At some point, even Z-mom got a computer at home, and an email address (incorporating the name of her favorite candy bar).  She was happy to receive pictures of her great-grandchildren, and jokes forwarded from some friends in town, but she never really took to sending emails.  So Z-mom and I kept writing to each other.  I had gotten in the habit of sending her a postcard from every place I went, even if I was only there for two days for some less than glamorous business trip.  Greetings from Ames, Iowa!...  I've been in Austin since yesterday...  Greetings from Fargo, North Dakota!...

Those are the actual (totally fascinating, I know) opening lines from postcards I sent to Z-mom in October of 1999, June of 2001, and November of 2001, respectively. I know this because, as it turns out, Z-mom has apparently saved just about every card and letter I've ever sent to her.  I can look back through them and trace my travels, observe the ups and downs of my life and work as reported to her, relive events and even whole vacations I'd sort of forgotten. I went to Cape Hatteras in 2002?  Oh yes...that's when those undated photos in the album are from!

The most hilarious postcard I've found so far, however, is not one I wrote.  It's one my ex sent to Z-mom in November of 1991 while we were living in Europe, during the month I was away from him working at my German boss's collaborator's lab in Israel.  It reads in part

[Zuska] will be gone for another 12 days or so.  At least we talk often by electronic mail, which takes only an hour or less to get there, so we can even discuss things back and forth in the same day.  I wish everyone had electronic mail, it is really quick and easy.

Electronic mail!  The brand spanking new form of communication!  Takes an hour or less to arrive!  In the beginning of that same year, my German boss-to-be had wanted to communicate with me via this fancy electronic mail but alas! we did not have such a thing in my lab at Duke yet.  So we had to arrange the details of my postdoc, arrival in Germany, and the apartment he was taking for me via the other available high tech form of communication...fax.

I love what Z-mom's cache of letters and postcards gives back to me.  When I was much younger, I religiously kept a daily diary from about age 7 or so to age 17.  Then I fell out of the habit.  Writing to Z-mom has been something of a substitute, I now see.  There's a whole series of postcards I sent her from travels in Europe, which are wonderful to have, since the ex got most of the photos.

Above all I am grateful that she wrote to me so much when I was an undergraduate, for by doing so she taught me the habit of writing letters, and the tangible joy a piece of mail can impart when you are lonely and away from your loved ones.  Sometimes now we talk on the phone two or three times in a day, but I still write to  her.  All her life she has always enjoyed getting and sorting the day's mail.  You might think that now she is in assisted living and no longer has to worry about dealing with bills and banking that the urgency of the daily mail would drop away, but you would be wrong.  She is still just as eager for each day's mail delivery, and it seems more important than ever that it should contain something other than Reader's Digest asking her to renew now.  Every holiday, no matter how small, was an excuse for her to send me a card when I was an undergraduate, and so now I return the favor.  I haunt the Hallmark display in the grocery store to see what crazy special holiday cards are up next, and I buy one, and I send it off.  I look for "just because" cards that might give her a laugh, because laughter is good for you.  I buy "series" notecards - spring, summer, fall, winter; numbers 1 through 4 of a whimsical bug and flower illustration - and send them off in series, so she can anticipate the next one.

I write to her so she will have mail, but I also write to her for myself.  Not because someday I'll get to read my cards and letters again, and remember oh yeah, 2011 was the summer I put in the climbing rosebush, but because writing to her is a way I stay connected to her, a way of emulating her, a way of saying "this is a part of you that is also a part of me."

Postcard from Paris

12 responses so far

  • TheGrinch says:

    What a wonderful post Zuska!

    I do not generally write any letters to anyone, not even emails, when it is not necessary. But my wife does. She sends notes to people on both side of the family, birthday cards, anniversary cards—each one with a unique personal message. I never managed to do that myself and never understood what gives her so much joy.

    Your post goes a long way in explaining that to me. Thank you.

  • leigh says:

    what a lovely post, Z. it's easy to forget in this age how much a handwritten letter can mean for the writer and the recipient.

  • Zuska says:

    I left home, family, and a tight-knit community for college at a relatively young age; then, because of the demands and requirements of a life in science, I was never able to go back and rejoin that community or live close to my family members again. And this was in a time when, as I have noted, email didn't exist or was just coming along, and things like text messaging, blogs, twitter, etc. weren't even thought of. These experiences and constraints helped me learn to value letters and letter-writing. During my college years, I carried on an extensive correspondence with my mother, father, siblings, high school friends, one or two other relatives, and, for the first year of college, a boy I had a serious crush on. In graduate school I wrote regularly not just to my mother, but to my mother-in-law as well and often to my father-in-law, and to my grandmothers-in-law. If my father and grandparents had still been alive I would have written to them too. I don't know if anyone else has saved any of the letters I sent them, but in college I saved most of the letters I received, brought them home with me, and these my mother has kept all these years as well. So it is with painful pleasure that I encounter my father's voice once more after all these years, in his carefully printed block script, in the handful of letters he sent to me when I was a student at Penn State.

  • studyzone says:

    I loved this post, Zuska! I have every single letter my grandmother wrote to me, from the time I was a young girl until the last card she sent a month before she died at age 95. Grandma taught me to love to write and receive letters. Imagine writing a letter to someone, and getting an envelope addressed to you (and you alone - no pesky sister included) in reply. That was how I felt at age 8. Even though I use email religiously, I still write letters and cards. I am a traditionalist at heart, I guess, and feel that a hand-written letter trumps everything else. But now that my grandmother is gone, I no longer get replies in the mail - my friends and family have all fully embraced other forms of communication. Maybe I should, too (and maybe they'd prefer it), but I can't give it up.

  • anon says:

    My grandmother saved the letters she wrote to my grandfather before they were married. He was away for work with the WPA (1930's), and she was nurse in a local hospital (a job that she gave up to get married and have a family). It wasn't until after she died (recently) that my mother and her sisters found the stack of letters that she had hidden away. They were full of information about what was going on at that time, but it was all told through her young and witty voice. We always knew her sense of humor, but it wasn't at all tamed back then! Needless to say, the letters are really a treasure.

    I'm glad you have that correspondence with your Mom.

  • sam says:

    When I was younger, letter writing seemed like such a silly thing - email was becoming ubiquitous, I was new to the big city and so very metropolitan, and jeez, mom, there's a computer at the library - go use it.

    She never really did, and the only communication we had was over the phone.

    The only letter I have from her is one she never sent, that was half finished, trying to find the words to tell me she was dying. That letter I will cherish forever, not only because of its contents, but because it's one of the only tangible ways that her voice will be with me forever. I wish SO HARD that letters had been exchanged.

    Hindsight is 20/20.

    • Zuska says:

      I'm so sorry for your loss, and can imagine how grateful you are to have that one letter.

      You can still write to the people in your life now. Even a little card with a few lines is a wonderful thing.

  • Aunti Disestablishmentarian says:


  • JustaTech says:

    My grandmother made a deal with all of her grandkids: In college, if we wrote her a letter every month, she would write us back with a check for $50, and we had to promise not to spend it all on school stuff. I don't know about my cousins, but I wrote to her at least once a month. It was a great way for me to organize my thoughts and really remember everything that had happened, so easily forgotten through the haze of work.

    After college I took to e-mailing her instead (so she could make the font as large as she needed). When my mother and I visited recently she gave us back all the letters we had written. I haven't looked at mine, but listening to my mother's was hilarious. It took her three letters to figure out that the "guy" she kept writing about was her step-brother with a silly nickname.

  • Val says:

    Heh heh. Just one more justification for keeping my several drawerfuls jammed w/old correspondence (mostly greeting cards, but a few old-fashioned postcards & letters). Do need to organize 'em though 😉

  • Zuska says:

    Bob Martin had a wonderful essay on letter writing in the August 7 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, What We'll Lose With Dead Letters. I highly recommend it.

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