What Having a Pen Pal Taught Me About the Value of Handwritten Cards

A years-long correspondence with my uncle made me fall in love with sending cards.

letter-flowers
Photo by Brian Hagiwara/Getty Images

“The mail’s coming!” I yelled to my grandmother, who was in another room crocheting a doily for a local raffle. Before she could respond, I threw open the screen door and bolted down the grassy hill in front of our house. Her voice trailed behind me saying, “Slow down, and stay in the yard!”

At the mailbox, I leaned forward, just far enough without breaking her rule, to catch a glimpse of the vehicle coming down our street. A single, red beacon light—anchored haphazardly atop the USPS Jeep Dispatcher—cut through a dirt cloud on our gravel road.

As a child, I’d wait in earnest for the mail to arrive at our home in Durham, Maine. I counted down the days on the Farmer’s Almanac calendar that hung in our kitchen until the 15th of each month, when I'd finally receive a delivery from Charlestown, Massachusetts. My uncle, Linus Campbell, was nearly blind, but that didn’t stop him from penning personalized, handwritten letters to me every month.

The to and from addresses were nearly illegible, resembling something kind of like ancient script or Egyptian hieroglyphics. Each envelope contained a card, with a short message scrawled on one side and a coin taped to the other. The coins ranged from rare pennies to half-dollars, from ordinary sidewalk finds to gumball machine tokens. In my young mind, one was not worth more than another. Don’t spend this all in one place or toss this one into a wishing well, he’d write.

Once, every few months or so, there’d be a longer letter tucked inside. Fun tidbits, history lessons, and glimpses into my uncle’s creative mind popped from each page. I learned that you can’t sneeze with your eyes open and tried for days to touch my nose with my tongue. I knew more about the Old West than any kid around, and his stories rivaled those of Dr. Seuss, but with questionable rhyming.

Some of the cards were handmade with colorful sketches of animals, buildings, and flowers on the front. Others were wacky, funny cards purchased at a local Charlestown novelty store. For an added dash of humor, my uncle’s greetings often contained the wrong name on purpose: Sally, Mabel, Sarah, Cheryl.

I'd promptly respond in kind, usually sending back a drawing of my own or a comic clipped from our local newspaper—and always a handwritten letter. Friskie was sneaky and ate an entire bag of Hershey Kisses, I told him in one letter. He responded next time, asking if our inquisitive canine survived the Great Chocolate Incident of Unimaginable Surprise. Telling him that I almost aced a pop quiz at school, he encouraged me to do my best, because “your best is all anyone can ever ask for.” Miles separated us, yet I had an ever-present cheerleader, counselor, and comedian by my side.

Our pen pal affiliation lasted for years. As time marched on, his handwritten pages were reduced to paragraphs, and the paragraphs eventually dwindled to just a few sentences scribbled on a lonely page. I’d compensate for his lack of words, writing until my fingers ached. I cried onto fancy pink stationary the day I told him that Friskie had passed away. When I nailed my first headstand, I drew a stick-figured girl teetering on her noggin. I wrote more when he wrote less.

Then, one day, his envelopes stopped coming. For months, I’d still wait by the mailbox, hopeful, despite my grandmother’s pleas. But my uncle could no longer see well enough to sketch or write to me.

The world has changed since our final correspondence. SEND has replaced the warmth of ink, and instant messages are the new normal. I couldn’t help but smile the other day, as I watched two teens texting each other from opposite sides of a soccer field, pointing and laughing in some kind of adolescent code.

But writing letters back then, I learned that each dot of an “i” and period placed thoughtfully at the end of sentence meant someone was thinking of you. An emoji can never replace that kind of personalization—the kind that helps nurture friendships, nudge romance, and, otherwise, cultivate great relationships. Convenience will rarely turn a moment into a lasting memory. As my uncle taught me, great relationships require time and effort, and nothing beats the cordiality of a handwritten letter.

Despite countless moves, and the loss of many belongings along the way, I still have one of my uncle’s cards saved in the sleeve of an old Reader’s Digest. The edges are worn and the tape is brown, yet his handwritten words are as fresh as the day I fetched the envelope from a mailbox on Stackpole Road: Until next time, Mabel. With love from Charlestown.