Ode to a Handwritten Relic

Lydia A. Nayo is a writer in Oakland. Her e-mail address is:

Any day now, the post office will be altogether outdated. All bill-paying transactions will take place on computers. There will be no need to lick stamps or sign checks. Cash will be replaced with little debit cards with v-chips that we replenish daily by calling the bank and swiping the card through a reader attached to the side of the phone. Thanks to electronic mail and facsimile programs on the computer, letters delivered through slots in doorways or tucked into mailboxes will go the way of high-buttoned shoes. All communication will be electronic. I am underwhelmed at the prospect.

I’ve adjusted to electronic banking. I accept the premise that no self-respecting bank will automatically send me that fat envelope full of canceled checks, the space-consuming proof that I am a responsible adult who pays bills more or less on time. I stopped resisting being deprived of the opportunity to take that hour twice a month to sit with my checkbook, the evidence of the existence of my money, and decide who gets paid. I have money management computer software; I don’t have to know how to subtract $16.54 from $780.12. On the back end, with this software, I touch a couple of buttons and the checkbook almost balances itself. The system even spits out a reconciliation report for posterity. I never wonder how much money I haven’t got. I’m about as technologically proficient as I need to be.

Admittedly, there are some communications best accomplished by telephone or fax or e-mail. Those are excellent media for immediacy, for saving time and sometimes money. Angry missives to the hostelry that doesn’t appreciate your resistance to paying full price for having your business trip nuanced by the overheated room, the lack of hot water, the noisy construction that went on all night--that’s a letter best drafted on the computer. And the invitations to the reception I hosted for the publication of Allegra’s calendar could be edited within a couple of hours between her in Baltimore and me in Oakland, thanks to e-mail. When Gene travels to another time zone on business, the voice-mail systems allow us to maintain the illusion of being in touch with each other: He leaves the number of his hotel on our voice mail, I call him back, acknowledging his message on the personalized phone answering system in his hotel room, the one that knows his name even though he’s been there for less than 24 hours. It’s so much a part of our lives to communicate with such phantoms that we are genuinely surprised to reach an actual human being when we call.


The potential loss of social letter writing, however, stings. I actually enjoy going to card stores, choosing among boxes of museum reproduction cards or brilliantly colored stationery. It doesn’t take that long, nor is it that onerous, to select a book of stamps featuring Bessie Smith, roses or Charles Mingus. There is even a different quality to a letter written longhand. Since you have to think about legibility and the limits of space on a notecard, you are more circumspect about what is included and what is left out.

Undoubtedly, the hand is slower than the imagination. But the time spent visiting with my nephew in Ojai by way of a note is not encroaching that much on my novel crafting or my abstract thinking. While I recount to my daughter the latest husband story and commiserate about life in general, I am enjoying a moment away from the daily swirl. I like sending a reproduction of a Faith Ringgold story quilt in a red envelope with a Georgia O’Keeffe poppy stamp on it to my law school buddy in Cleveland. Double art surrounding whatever small moment about which I write has to suggest that good news has arrived.

I am glad that I don’t live in era when I might have been expected to get up at 4 a.m. to set the bread dough to rise and then spend the day beating clothes on rocks to get them clean. I don’t mind that I don’t have to raise my dinner from infancy and then chase it around the front yard, wringing its neck when its number comes up. And I am certainly happy that, at 45, I am not considered old. But I don’t look forward to the day when I get a fax to the effect that Kelley and Desmond proudly welcome the arrival of my grandchild.