Saturday, April 13, 2013

Connecting Across Generations

My first reaction was sadness, then a flicker of anger.

I was reading a recent New York Times opinion piece "Digital Era Redefining Etiquette" by Nick Bolton. This obviously young, rather self-important writer decried the rudeness of people who send emails or texts simply to say "Thank you." Or someone who leaves a voice mail instead of texting. "Don't these people realize they are wasting your time?" he asked with a hint of petulance.

He went on to say that he had ignored a dozen voice mails from his father because he just doesn't do voice mails. When his exasperated father called Nick's sister to complain that Nick wasn't returning his calls, she told him that "No one listens to voice mail anymore. Just text him."

He said that this taught his father a lesson and that "My mother realized this long ago. Now we communicate mostly through Twitter."

While I'm all for communication however people can manage it, it made me sad and angry to hear the "My way or the highway" tone of the piece and that someone would ever consider a word of thanks -- however sent -- a waste of time.

We need to honor each other's favored means of communication.

Our friend Sharon learned to text expertly in order to keep up with her two young adult children. And they are quick to call her (her preferred method of communication) and to visit her, at least in part because they feel she truly cares what's going on in their lives and has gone to the trouble to communicate their way -- and so they meet her half way.

There are advantages to all the various forms of communicating. There is a wonderful immediacy to texting and emails. Hearing the voice of a loved one on the phone is a special joy. Spending time face to face with a loved one is life enhancing. And a written letter via old-fashioned "snail mail" is beyond special.

After all, you can't treasure a text 50 years later.  I have a little box of letters that never fail to bring a smile to my face and, at times, a few tears.

There is the letter my friend and former teacher Sister Ramona Bascom wrote to me on my high school graduation day, telling me how much she valued both my friendship and my character and specifically what she valued in me as a person and her heartfelt wishes for a bright future. I have it still -- and it warms my heart every time I see it and remember how much her love and confidence in me meant when I was an adolescent and have continued to mean so much throughout my life.

There are the letters from my parents when I was in college, telling me how proud they were, how excited they were for my future, along with my father's cautionary advice to not let boys be a distraction from my studies and my career goals.

There are the two letters I found in Aunt Molly's nightstand after she died. Written ten years apart, they are long letters I wrote to her, telling her how much she meant to me, to my brother, sister and me, and the impact that her kindness and guidance and example as we were growing up had had on our lives.

One letter had been prompted by her surprise over my dedicating my Teenage Depression book to her with "To Aunt Molly, who gave me inspiration and hope in my teens and a lifetime of very special joy."

In my long letter to her, I told her very specifically how she had inspired me and given me hope during dark times. She said at the time that she intended to keep that book and that letter to read over and over during her own times of doubt and depression. The second letter, written in response to a phone conversation when she expressed regret about not being more in touch with her own aunts, now long deceased. And I wrote to her that she did the best she could, during a youth marred by becoming an orphan far too soon, by struggling to complete college at the height of the Great Depression and start her work life when the world was at war. And she agreed, saying she was going to keep that letter for re-reading, too. And she did. And now I have them back-- and they give me a certain peace even as I mourn the loss of this extraordinary aunt, knowing that I did let her know how much she meant to me, to us.

And there are some wonderful letters from Aunt Molly, filled with love and firm guidance ("Get down off your cross and get your sense of humor back!") and simply inspired writing. The last one I have from her in my little memory box was posted on the day of her sudden death from a heart attack. It was a thank you note -- one of hundreds she sent to us during her life -- filled with gratitude for the festive Christmas we all had spent together, one lovely last holiday we enjoyed with our beloved aunt.

I love to hold the letters, trace the cursive writing -- that generation had such great penmanship -- and feel a connection once more.

Of course, times change.  I just got an email from Sister Ramona -- who is now working as a student counselor at Stanford University -- telling me that she is coming to my 50th reunion next weekend and would love to get together for dinner afterward. She gave me her cell phone number. And so we change with the times.

But saying "Thank you" or "I appreciate your kindness" or "I love you!" by whatever means you prefer never goes out of style.

It's important that we value messages from loved ones whether they are Twittered or texted or emailed or come by phone or snail mail.

These connections between people who care, whatever form they take, are to be treasured.


  1. What these kids are missing is the hugs that they can only get through face to face contact.

  2. When my family moved from Hawaii to Los Angeles decades ago, I kept in touch with my friend Susie via typewritten letters -- single spaced on my Smith Corona. One letter was 7 pages long, typed on both sides of the page.

    Although I do miss those days of long letters, I love email because of its immediacy and convenience. I can email a friend at 2am and not bother her and I know that she will reply as soon as it is convenient for her.

    What disappoints me are very short emails with U instead of "you," B instead of "be" etc. Emails with incomplete sentences and very often no signature.

    I am not a fan of talking on the phone, partly because I think with my fingertips on the keyboard.

  3. It's all about respect, isn't it? Clearly Mr Nick Bolton wasn't taught any!

  4. I love writing letters - and still do - although now they are in email format.

    The internet has open up a new world for me and I write letters to people whom I never met - but through the wonders of the www - they are now my friends.

    We all have our preferred means of communicating - I rarely text - preferring to speak (on the phone)as a response to a text.

    Any form of communication can only be good for our souls.

    Anna :o]

  5. There will never be anything in my mind that can replace the handwritten letter. A letter is both tangible and visual, something a text or email is not.

    You are right, though, in that it is the staying in contact part that is most important.

  6. I don't think I'd like Nick Bolton very well. Like you, I save letters. And I'm so glad I do -- every individually designed and beautifully written thank you note from my artist friend Kate, cards from Rick, notes from my parents and even long correspondence from a friend who died about ten years ago. I'm so glad I have it.

    I have a stupid phone. Maybe someday I'll dump the land line and get something smart, but I don't want to be hooked in every minute of the day -- I am enough with the computer. Texting seems to disrupt everything -- the flow of family time or dinner out with friends, or even meetings. That's me. Someday, maybe. But with rules for my behaviour!

    Would you mind if I shared this link on my FB page? It's a post that deserves being shared.

  7. Times keep changing and we must try to stay with such changes; but how difficult it must be for so many elderly. It's most frustrating not getting that expected letter or phone call from friends and family who used to call and send letters.

    We can complain about the changes, or, we can learn to text, twit, or whatever it takes to communicate. Aren't the new phones taking verbal orders to send text messages? That's an app. I could use.

  8. Oh My.... Not sure I like this new generation of young adults in our country!!! Technology can be an enemy in some ways I guess.. AND--young people seem more selfish these days and greedy --and always in a hurry... Too bad about communication..

    I too had to learn to text to keep up with my adult sons... I also went on Facebook to keep up with them... But--I've never heard them say that they don't like voicemails or calling any longer.. There are so many good ways to communicate --but I (like you) miss reading the letters we have from relatives in our past. I have quite a few letter written to me from my mother. I treasure them.

    One of my sons is a good writer --and emails really nice letters. I print them --and will have them to keep and share in the future...

    Great post, Kathy.

  9. Last year I found a box of letters my father had written to his mother, my grandmother, when he was a young Marine lieutenant during World War II. I saw a new and not very nice side of my dad - but was very glad to have the letters.

    I now save special emails.

    I'm thinking about contacting my grown son. He's recently ended a long relationship and so far he hasn't answered any of my emails or texts - but I need some help hooking up my new flat panel TV, and I wonder whether that would entice him to stop by.

  10. My mother saved every letter ever written. When she died I got all my letters back. They are a time capsule of my life. I am grateful for modern communication devices that let me keep in touch with my granddaughters who live far away. They, however, love getting mail from Nana! I'm sure that when they are older they will switch to text, but for now I write and send packages...and call.

  11. Good post. I share your emotional attachment to letters, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for them to come back. But as suggested, you can always print out emails ... not quite the same thing, but it's something.

    I don't text or twitter, although I'm thinking of starting to text b/c that currently does seem to be the most popular form of communication. But the only advantage I can see is that texts are short, terse, to the point, with no context, emotion or thought involved.

  12. Thankfully our family just doesn't do texts (I just can't use those fiddly buttons) but we use email all the time to keep in touch, even to and from my 89 year-old mother-in-law. Interestingly I use email rather than the phone a lot of the time so that I don't interrupt people at a possibly inconvenient time, and I can't see the difference between an email and a text in this respect. A thought-provoking post, Kathy.