Value in letter-writing
I used to be a father. I still am, and now I’m a grandfather, too. But it’s a load I can handle because the job description is just about identical. It calls for inspiration – of young minds and young hearts, especially of grandkids who live farther away and, therefore, consider themselves relatively safe from my constant inspirational messages.
Despite TV, video games, tablets and smartphones, and an environment humming with electronic messages, we Jews honor and cherish the printed word. We still are the People of the Book. Give us a pencil (or a pen) and a piece of paper, and we’ll find something to say.
So, I write a lot of letters to my grandkids. For still less than 50 cents – it goes up most years (no competition will do that) – you’re able to send a large number of words written on several pieces of paper. And, for a few more cents, a wise grandfather, besides advice and family gossip, can include a candy bar, a stick of gum, a newspaper clipping or a baseball card to lure the young mind into the civilized joy of correspondence. What teacher ever taught successfully without incentives? It’s a trick I learned years ago from the Cracker Jack people. They marketed candy with cheap, fragile toys. I market family pride.
I use wiles of all kinds to encourage my younger kin to rip open their envelopes with frantic enthusiasm. “Wonder what he sent this time? Maybe, if I write back today, he’ll send me another Hershey bar.”
Yes, Hershey bars are great. Nice and flat for mailing, but they have their disadvantages in July, unless you live in Nome and your granddaughter hangs out with her kids in Anchorage.
Kids love letters with or without sweet bonuses. They love their name in big, bold letters on the envelope. They love the ritual of sorting through the mail and throwing the discards on the floor before finding their letter.
And, like I say, I rarely write without including something that is either amusing, edible or ethically fortifying. My favorites are clippings from my local newspaper (human interest stories, we used to call them). So educational! They encourage kids to read and observe the world outside of home and school. If you pick your stories with care, you can package amusement and even morality in your envelopes. For example, I just mailed off to eight grandkids the story of a 65-year-old lady who wrote a confession to her high school principal – she cheated in a high school writing course 47 years ago!
My small audience loved it and marveled at her delayed, but full, confession. They had many questions: “Did she have to take the class over? Did she get a punishment? Did they send her a new report card? I assured them she was not punished and maybe – because of her honesty – they renamed the auditorium in her honor.
But my kids usually award the family Pulitzer Prize to the vignettes I call “Pet Saves Family”: the collie who pulled Jamie out of the river, the cocker spaniel who barked and alerted the family to their smoldering home and, of course, the whole category of dog-finds-missing-child stories. We humans, even after we’ve lost the glow of childhood, still have a soft spot for animal rescue stories. It goes back in history to the gabbling geese who saved Rome. A story probably told in a grandfather’s letter of 300 BCE.
We don’t always need burning homes and swollen rivers. Kids of the right age (say over 3 and under 10) love any animal story. Naturally. They love animals. There’s a kinship there of smallness, innocence, helplessness that we don’t relate to as much when we become older and taller, and more cynical.
Just this month, I mailed out a tearjerker that couldn’t fail to warm the juvenile heart. A two-column report of a three-legged dog – a mutt who had lost a race with a truck and forfeited one of his four limbs – who found a lost child. The sheriff and an army of searchers failed, noted the article, but the dog, with only 75% of its limbs, found the missing child.
The returns from my young readers have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about this theme. “More!” they cry. They want more. But that’s not so easy. I’m at the mercy of the newspaper industry, which is attracted to war, corruption, crime and disease, rather than the uplifting genre of “pet finds child” or other positive news.
Besides the inspirational value, there’s a selfish payoff to my letter writing campaigns: I like the return mail. And, maybe decades from now, when I’m old and my pen trembles on the paper and my poor old grinders are loose and wobbly, my mail will be full of attentive notes sweetened with easy-to-eat Hershey bars. Bread on the waters, you know.
Ted Roberts is a freelance writer and humorist living in Huntsville, Ala.