The Forever Letter

Elana Zaiman

Writing What We Believe For Who We Love

Excerpt from the Section: Sometimes We Can Write What We Cannot Speak

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Max was in his sixties when he told me about his father, who had not been verbally communicative but who had been self-aware enough to know this about himself. To compensate for his lack of verbal communication skills, he wrote Max letters. It was through these letters that Max and his father tended their relationship.

     Cora, in her fifties, said that when she was a teenager, she and her father had trouble communicating. One day she had the idea of leaving him a letter in his suitcase when he traveled on business, which he did often. It worked. He appreciated her notes and would respond from wherever his travels took him. Their letter writing continued for years, and in their letters they would out a lot of issues.

     Danielle, also in her fifties, talked about her father, a judgmental man with a temper that worsened as he aged. She said that toward the end of his life he wrote a letter to his children in which he wrote things he had never been able to say in person. He wrote that he was sorry he had made mistakes, that he wasn’t the best father he could have been, that he did the best he could. He took responsibility for his fatherhood.

     The Human Comedy by William Saroyan is a coming-of-age novel set in Ithaca, California, during World War II. Homer Macauley, the main character, is a boy of fourteen who longs to become a telegraph operator. Homer’s brother, Marcus, goes to fight in the war. Scared of not returning home, Marcus writes Homer a letter before heading off to the front. In this letter, Marcus passes on his possessions — his clothes, bicycle, phonograph, rock collection, fishing gear — but he also imparts his values, ideals, hopes, faith, and love. 

He writes about how much he misses Homer and how he hopes to see him soon. He shares his thoughts about the war, his fears about what lies ahead, and his hope to return to Ithaca, to his girlfriend, and to create a family of his own. He also officially appoints Homer as the new head of the family and expresses his belief in Homer to both carry the family forward and keep the family together. The final paragraph of Marcus’s letter begins with the words, “I can say in a letter what I could never say in speech.”

     Marcus is not alone. Sometimes it’s easier for us to express our emotions in writing than it is for us to express them verbally. Today, we are witnessing a communication revolution. Our teens are out there texting away. We say this is their downfall; always on their screens, they don’t know how to talk to each other in person about stuff that matters.  Perhaps that’s true, but maybe, just maybe, we communicate more honestly and truthfully by texting and e-mailing than we do face-to-face, as recent research from the University of Nebraska reports. (Jordan Valinsky “Study: It’s Easier to Tell the Truth Over Text So Why Bother Speaking Anymore?”)

     A divorced friend of mine, who spent months on the online dating scene, told me that she couldn’t believe how much she had revealed in the long e-mails she had written to men she hardly knew. She believed the anonymity of the screen enabled her to feel more comfortable, safe, open, and uninhibited than she would have felt in person.

     Some of us have trouble speaking to people we love about the things that are most important to us. Perhaps it’s easier for us to write down our words. Writing a forever letter gives us the opportunity to do so.

The forever letter book
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Dr. Ivy Ge

Doctor of Pharmacy, author of The Art of Good Enough. She writes to inspire women to design their own fate. Her writings and interviews have been featured on MSNBC, Thrive Global, Working Mother magazine, Parentology, and The Times of India.