A letter starts with “Dear (Name),” and I often wondered why every greeting had to be the same.
In elementary school, we had to memorize the different parts of a letter, and I was always confused about the placement of the sender’s and recipient’s addresses on the envelope. While I believe I did well in those classes, I’m glad it hadn’t been necessary for me to apply them outside the classroom. As a kid, someone else made sure to get the addresses written correctly for me: my father.
Writing letters became a big part of my formative years because my mother has been working overseas. Every time the mail arrived at our doorstep, my sisters and I would be excited yet no one would dare open it until everyone in the family was present. I often volunteered for that part: holding up the white envelope that had blue and red stripes on its edges against the fluorescent light in our living room, careful not to cut the folded pieces of paper inside as I trim one side of the envelope.
My mother wrote us separate letters. Thinking of it now as an adult, that may have been her way of connecting with each of us despite the distance. I had always valued that privacy. In my response to her letters, I often complained about my father who would steal a piece or two from the “candy collection” I kept in our fridge.
Within a few days of receiving our mother’s post, my father would collect our scribbles and enclose them in an envelope. I was privy to this process; I made sure to fold my handwritten letter deliberately so the important parts were concealed from prying eyes, and I sometimes taped the sides and signed, too — you know, the way confidential documents and preserved goods are secured. “Do not accept if seal is broken.”
My mother was always the first person to greet me on my birthday, and I took pride in that. I’d get an exclusive mail every December, a month before my actual birthday, which meant my mother had to send it three months before then. And the cards were always unique: they were thicker and heavier than normal because they had small chips that would produce sound whenever I flipped the card open. At the time, there was none like that in bookstores in the Philippines.
Eventually, the letters became scarce because our communication shifted to phone calls. My mother would often ring at night, when it’d be afternoon on her side of the world. Everyone in the family would form a queue of sorts, waiting for our turn on the phone. Every minute counted as international calls didn’t come cheap, and those calls usually ended with “‘Pag naputol ito, ubos na ang load ng card ko, ha.”
I was in my pre-teens then, and hogging the phone to talk to friends was our version of social media and chat apps. We could talk for hours about the quotidian details of our summer break: afternoon snack, weekend morning shows on television, our dogs’ activities. It was during one of those telebabad calls when my grade school best friend and I agreed to exchange letters even if we lived only a kilometer away from each other. We convinced our parents to drop our handwritten notes at the post office, and, as we waited for the mail to arrive, continued on our afternoon hobby.
When I finally received a letter, I was surprised to find my own, marked with the text, “Return to sender.” I was certain about the placement of the addresses on the envelope this time, and my friend’s address which I had written was accurate.
My friend dismissed it as a minor setback. So, in the weeks that followed, we continued writing notes in the stationery we collected, enclosing stickers, photos, drawings, and what have yous. Instead of coursing our letters through the post office, however, my father would drive me by my friend’s house so we could personally exchange effects.
Beginning high school, letter-writing took different forms — we were introduced to business letters and block formatting as opposed to informal, personal ones with indented paragraphs — all depending on the persons and circumstances involved. This was the time of Friendster testimonials and Yahoo! Messenger chats. Despite the technological update, though, handwritten notes were considered romantic and still much preferred.
Professions of admiration were stealthily delivered to muses, and they sometimes fell into the wrong hands. A tragedy for the sender, and a comedy for his recipient.
This happened to me a decade ago when a letter addressed to me was slipped through the locker next to mine, which incidentally belonged to our class clown. Before its contents reached me, the rest of my class got their hands on it first. So, the next time, the letter was dumped directly into my bag. Or was delivered through mutual friends. This message relay morphed into a notebook that an admirer and I shared and took turns to fill. Think of it as a dialogue, albeit in handwritten format; or a chat, but long-form.
While such correspondence was done in private, teenage romance sometimes called for a public declaration — often in the form of big Valentine’s cards, with size about a quarter of an illustration board. It contained varied messages from friends and classmates, like a miniature freedom wall.
I carried my affinity for handwritten notes through adulthood. Despite the ease of phone messaging apps, they pale in comparison to the thoughtfulness of penned letters.
I share the love of words with my boyfriend. We both lamented the slow demise of a meaningful practice made obsolete by the digital age. Back when we were still dating, we agreed to advocate for what we deemed a worthy cause: “Ibalik ang Integridad ng Philippine Post!” I gave him the address of our family home. We still saw each other, keeping tabs on what was yet to be delivered. He recounted the process of sending the mail in post, which inspired him to collect stamps — a hobby from days long gone that have now become either impractical or expensive.
After several months with nary any idea where his letter had gone, we called it quits. In our groundbreaking attempt, the advocacy collapsed. This didn’t deter us from working on the more important goal, though, which was to write, to keep writing. My boyfriend would later give me a handwritten poem enclosed in an envelope; it would be one of the many handwritten notes from him that I’d keep.
What’s peculiar about the lost art of letter-writing goes beyond what is being shared in the strings of words.
Penmanship shows a person’s mood as he writes his thoughts. A neat letter could mean either the sender is a master of grammar and spelling or he took his time to first lay his thoughts down. It’s usually the latter, and that unnecessary but appreciated effort can confirm the importance of the relationship between the sender and the recipient. (Example: When we were just dating, my boyfriend wrote his first letter to me with a pencil.)
Hasty writing would show cluttered lines and smudgy text, with some erasures here and there. And the erasures are telling: Are they due to spelling errors or a sentence second-guessed? Was it something the sender wanted to express but decided to hold off and keep to himself?
A person tends to write with more pressure when stressed or agitated, and the impression can be felt on the backside of pages. Water droplets blotting ink on paper may show sadness (Could it be from a teardrop?) or carelessness (Could it be spilled water from a drink?). Coffee stains imply writing in the morning or at night, insinuating that the receiver is the first and last thought on the sender’s mind. Or, maybe, we’re overthinking here.
Whatever the case, both to a sender and the recipient, letters are an experience. And the subtle nuances that come with letter-writing are gone with the convenience of technology. Words are no longer personal when thoughts are published for the public to see on social media and with the urgency to reply after every notification alert.
Yet, Reader, in the not-too-mainstream recesses of the internet, you may still find the same allowance for vulnerability once embraced by an outdated system. The hankering for a profound connection online birthed personal blogs in the early millennium — then no less sacred than a diary kept under the pillow, though now a carefully-curated, income-generating venture — and TinyLetters, a free email newsletter subscription service, amid the chaotic cacophony of social media feeds.
And if you look hard enough, perhaps you’ll find someone with the same love of letters — an e-pen pal, an email buddy, a modern pen pal, what do you even call them these days? I did.