I can divide my life, at age 43, into two neat halves: the letter-writing era and the post-letter-writing era. As a young person, I kept up a prolific and impressive written correspondence, as if I were a Victorian. I wrote to my friends from school during the long summers we were apart, and then I wrote to summer friends during the school year. I exchanged letters with my third-grade BFF, who moved overseas when we were 8, for an entire decade before our paths crossed again in person. I wrote to a boy in an English boarding school who sent me blue aerograms that made my heart skip a beat when they arrived; he always signed “LOTS of LOVE,” but acted like we were barely acquainted whenever we met in the flesh.
I recently rediscovered the carefully labeled shoeboxes containing all these letters along with my personal journals. My journal-writing, covering those oh-so-uneventful years from 10 to 18, is even more voluminous than my correspondence and much more embarrassing to reread. The shoeboxes even have the notes my friends and I smuggled to each other during class on torn scraps of loose-leaf. Here are the letters from my early romances. My first boyfriend had a touch of the German Romantic about him, even at 15. His handwriting is a cramped, all-caps print that contrasts tellingly with my effusive, copperplate cursive. My letters to him, thank God, have disappeared. His still make me blush.
All this writing from my past has a galvanizing effect on me now, in my 40s. These poignant, silly, painful reminders of friendships and loves and important moments are so dear. What sweet, funny, loyal friends I had. How lucky I was to love and be loved so passionately, even as a teenager. These letters, notes and journals anchor me to a past that is sliding ever more quickly out of view as my own children approach the turbulent, wonderful, wrenching years of their own adolescence.
Yet the strongest feeling these shoeboxes evoke in me is grief that no one—not I, not my children—will create this kind of emotional archive ever again. Digital communication, however expedient, fundamentally lacks the diligence and effort that made our letters and diaries so precious. They are heartfelt and personal in a way that social media can never replicate.
No blog entry, no Facebook page, no Instagram feed has the power a handwritten letter or diary entry did to capture a moment in time for eternity; I simply can’t imagine we will revisit our digital records a decade (or three) from now. Are we really going to scroll backwards through 20 years of Facebook posts? Not to mention that so much of what we communicate online is for a quasi-anonymous audience. As a writer today, you send this stuff out never being quite sure who’s going to see it. Even text messages have the ability to be shared instantly, as we repeatedly, warily warn our children from the moment they first get a smartphone. This couldn’t be more different than the writing we used to do for one person’s eyes alone, or for the even more select audience of me, myself and I.
My generation, embarking upon middle age, perfectly straddles two eras of communication. We are the last who will truly know what’s been lost. Our children will never write letters, other than, perhaps, if we are lucky, a missive from summer camp—which we will immediately post on Facebook. They won’t have class notes to remind them of their funny old friendships. They won’t have shoeboxes full of scented love letters that can still make them catch their breath in middle age, or excruciating journal entries chronicling the emotions of their adolescence. I’m so happy that I do, because to see myself in the rearview mirror of my own words (and the words written to me) is so precious and so bittersweet—look who I was then, and look who I’ve become.