When I was visiting my father recently, we uncovered a box full of cards and letters I had exchanged with my mother in the two years after her cancer diagnosis and before her death. It was an unbelievable treasure trove that brought smiles and tears and a strange sense of awe in the re-reading. In some cases, I could remember exactly where I was when I wrote the words. Some were in long-hand, some typed on my prized Selectric typewriter. [This was before PCs were affordable to most people…and e-mail was barely a glimmer in someone’s brain.]
That not-so-very-long-ago time had what many people the age of my daughter would consider some distinct disadvantages. Phones, for instance, were expensive to use long-distance; cheaper at night and on weekends, but still relatively expensive. [In the early 1970s, when I was finishing college in Massachusetts and the rest of my family were living in Belgium, we spoke exactly twice by phone in an entire year. Transatlantic calls were prohibitive.] All calls were measured in minutes: more minutes equaled more money; so it was rare for people to babble on and on and on and on (as my daughter and I can do). I did not call my mother every day because she lived across the state and neither of us had the money to talk long-distance daily.
A disadvantage? Yes. But the blessing was that we wrote to one another. And those notes and letters and cards still exist and an hour reading them brings back the tiny details of a precious time in my life. Seeing my mother’s handwriting makes me cry. Some of her wisdom wraps me in comfort. Her humor or mine makes me laugh aloud again.
When my daughter was in college 900 miles away, we e-mailed almost every day. I have something like 4300 e-mails from her that span those four years and the three years since. And a week ago, my e-mail provider lost them all. My beloved husband had them backed up on a hard drive and we recovered them. But for several heart-stopping hours, I thought it was all gone…every last funny story and triumphant discovery. Sure, I remember a lot of it…but not those tiny details that cause you to think, “How did this happen? How did she grow up this much in a WEEK?” An advantage to be able to share daily, hourly, the changes and simple moments? Assuredly. But the disadvantage is how ephemeral it feels, and how vulnerable.
Fast forward to yesterday when I spoke to that very daughter as she was about to board a plane from Shanghai to Beijing. Being able to hear her voice coming from China, hearing her as clearly as if she had been standing in the room with me, is nothing short of a miracle. Looking at the pictures she posts to Facebook or attaches to e-mails in real time, seeing her breakfast of lychee and dumplings the moment before she eats it — amazing.
I ponder the balance. The world is changing far faster than we can process it, and I am not convinced that is a fruitful way to live. I am not sure human beings are constituted to evolve at this pace. I don’t think the rise in fundamentalism on every continent and both sides of every spectrum is a coincidence. And on a more immediate level, I’m noticing that most of us are considerably crankier than we used to be. Many (if not all) of us are trying to cling to some kind of control in the face of a tsunami of change. The vast majority of us are pushing back against too much, too fast.
There is much to celebrate about sharing my daughter’s experience of China as she lives it, but there is something equally compelling about the slower, more labor-intensive experience of sending a postcard with a foreign stamp, or composing a hand-written letter, exploring the emotional nuances of seeing the Great Wall in person.
Do I want to return to a world before e-mail? No, I don’t think I do.
But I have to confess that I cherish with a fierce love the wise and wonderful words of my mother, coming to me across the years…and the carefully printed notes to the tooth fairy that our daughter left under her pillow and that I carefully collected and saved.
Text © 2014, Andrea La Sonde Anastos
Photos © 2012, Immram Chara, LLC