The personal touch that can mean so much
I spent part of the summer of my 16th year in southern Germany, honing my language skills and acquiring a taste for large, soft pretzels and Bavarian pilsner.
The language skills, never formidable, have atrophied considerably over the ensuing years.
I still enjoy a cold beer, though.
For the first few days of my European tour I wasn’t thinking about my accent or about malt beverages.
I was just miserable.
Homesick, to be specific.
And my case of that common affliction was, or so it seemed to me then, an especially nasty strain, one peculiar to teenagers who haven’t ever been alone in a foreign land and who struggle mightily to conjugate vital Germanic verbs.
(Even today, more than a quarter century later, the phrase “past participle of the neuter form” fills me with dread.)
The Muellers, the first of the two host families I stayed with, were wonderful people who strived to make my adjustment as quick, and as pleasant, as possible.
It helped too that their home, which is more aptly described as an estate, had a back yard which ended on the shore of the Ammersee, a beautiful lake in a glacial trough in the foothills of the Alps.
It was sort of like Wallowa County, only with umlauts.
Anyway I learned that it is slightly more difficult to pity yourself constantly while you’re learning to windsurf and being taken to beer gardens where many of the girls are fascinated by a foreigner.
Still and all, I didn’t feel at home in Germany, so to speak, until the day, perhaps a week after I got there, when Frau Mueller walked into her home and handed me an envelope.
I looked at it and saw my name, written in the elegant script that was nearly as familiar to me as my own careless scrawl.
My mom had addressed the envelope.
I ripped it open — fortunate, I suspect, not to turn the contents into confetti — and unfolded the letter inside.
It was, as I recall, a pretty banal bit of communication — the sort of “everyone’s fine here, hope you’re having fun” missive that parents have dashed off to their kids at summer camp for time immemorial.
But for me it was quite a lot more than that.
That single sheet of unlined paper epitomized for me the power of a simple letter from the hand of a loved one.
I was reminded of this recently by my wife, Lisa, when she received a handwritten thank you note from a friend to whom she had sent a gift.
Lisa noted that it’s increasingly rare to get such a letter; indeed, to get any kind of letter.
I hadn’t thought much about this, but of course Lisa is right.
The reasons for the escalating rarity of letter-writing (and sending) is obvious to any sentient being.
Email dealt the traditional letter a major blow (just ask the U.S. Postal Service), and Facebook and the text-capable cellphone have sent it sprawling to the canvas.
I wasn’t a faithful writer of letters before my trip to Germany.
I’m still not.
(This is hardly the sum of my faults. I feel compelled to confess as well to an affinity for much of the flaccid dreck of pop music recorded during the 1970s. I mean Firefall and Orleans and junk like that. I love that stuff.)
But though I haven’t written a great many letters I can still appreciate the thrill of receiving one.
(Which, I suppose, makes me selfish as well as lazy.)
I’m no Luddite, mind you.
I Facebook. I own a smartphone (though I have scarcely tapped its deep well of capabilities; I considered it a major feat to get the Oregon Ducks fight song as the ringtone).
Nor do I mean to suggest that a person can’t express heartfelt sentiments by way of an email or text message.
Yet these, and the other purely electronic ways in which we communicate, no matter how eloquent their words inevitably lack the humanity of a handwritten letter.
Notwithstanding clever emoticons and the like, messages sent by computer retain the cold, anodyne uniformity of the machines themselves.
A font, suffice it to say, can never be truly unique.
Were I to travel today to Germany I would not feel as isolated, nor as lonely, as I did during that summer of 1986.
I could (and no doubt would) summon Skype and at my leisure see the faces I cherish.
What I couldn’t do, I suspect, is ever replicate that feeling I had when Frau Mueller placed that envelope in my hands.
A mother’s words will always be welcome, especially to her son who sits in a distant land, beyond the far shore of a great ocean.
But watching words appear on a screen can’t touch your heart the way the simple sight of your name can do, when its letters are rendered in the graceful curves that belong to her alone.