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The lost art of mailing a letter Add to ...

Today I am a proud mother because today my son mailed his first letter. He is 20.

It may be a fair assumption that I have failed in the teachings of the most basic tasks in life. I thought I had them all covered.

He doesn’t trip over his shoelaces because he is remarkably proficient at tying them. He has not arrived at university in diapers. And if I could convince him that a bicycle is just as convenient a mode of transportation as my Pontiac, he would be able to ride that bike with confidence.

But somehow, the letter-mailing thing slipped through the cracks. When should I have covered this material? Probably during that summer between Grade 5 and 6. That’s when I sent him off to camp with preaddressed, postage-paid envelopes.

I now realize I was doing him no favours. Frankly, I was desperate for some correspondence, however brief, and I knew that my odds of getting it were better if there was less effort required on his end.

He is away at university in the United States and I needed him to sign a form and mail it to me. I felt this was a very basic request.

His days are filled with lectures on 18th-century Russian poetry. His evenings are spent writing 1,500 word essays. Surely, shoving a piece of paper in an envelope, scribbling an address on the front and sticking a stamp on it should have been a walk in the park.

Wrong. Try a walk on the moon. The texts and phone calls required to complete this task were equal in time and effort to sending a man, no, a crew, to the moon. The far side. And back.

Until the questions and confusion surfaced, it had never occurred to me that my son had never mailed a letter. Text, yes. E-mail, many times. Tweet, with his eyes closed. But good old snail mail is unfamiliar territory for not only my son, but much of his generation.

An informal survey of his friends supported my theory.

A few days after I had requested the signed form be sent to me, the phone rang. More specifically, the long-distance phone.

A tentative voice on the other end asked, “So, I put your name and address on the envelope?” Yes, I replied. Unless Kreskin has started delivering mail, that would be a good idea.

He continued, “And some kind of stamp?” Also a good idea, I assured him.

As there was no post office within a reasonable range where he could buy a single stamp, he purchased a book of stamps at the drugstore. So, what should have been roughly an 85 cent stamp, turned into a $6.80 set of eight stamps.

And since I never intend to repeat this exercise, I am fully prepared to absorb the cost of the seven remaining unused stamps.

This letter was now approaching the cost of a courier, once you figure in the long-distance phone charges. Not to worry. It is the principle of the matter. He needs to learn the very basic practice of mailing a letter.

I remained on the line while he applied the stamp. I heard a bit of coughing, a sputtering. My guess is he tried to lick the self-adhesive stamp, but I said nothing.

So, we have lift-off. He managed to find a mail box. And now we wait. And wait.

I eventually received the letter. The address was intact and legible. The correct postage was proudly displayed in the top left corner.

But the top right was oddly vacant. The stamp, a beautiful etching of the Liberty Bell was affixed upside down. It more resembled a cracked ancient goblet than the iconic symbol of American independence it was intended to be.

All this stamp abuse could have accounted for the slight delay in delivery.

I suppose I could just accept that we are living in a different time and realize that the next generation is not interested in learning a skill they deem to be archaic and unnecessary.

I wholeheartedly embrace technological forms of communication. Okay, not wholeheartedly, because I still don’t think people are interested when someone tweets what they ate for breakfast or how cool it is when their dog barks at his reflection in the mirror. Really?

I do accept that most correspondence can be done through e-mail, text or other forms of social media. But, there are still times and situations that require the skill of mailing a letter.

Before this eye-opening experience, I reserved the word “skill” for, say, walking a tightrope blindfolded or speaking three languages fluently. But when I realized the attention and focus my son devoted to correctly mastering this task, I developed a healthy respect for the activity of mailing a letter, as performed by a 20-year-old.

My son recently spent a weekend in Santa Barbara, Calif., as a houseguest. His hosts were welcoming and generous. A few days after his return back to school, I reminded him to send them a thank-you e-mail. I wanted to say handwritten note, but we were both fresh off the original letter-mailing debacle and my therapist was on holidays.

Much to my surprise and delight, it was he who felt the situation warranted a card sent by mail. The day that note arrives, I am certain the recipients will smile having no clue the journey it took for that letter to land in their mailbox.

Janet Chahwan lives in Vancouver.

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