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Many relationships in my life I conduct almost entirely by telephone, including those with the people dearest to me. With too much ocean or freeway stretching between our houses, it is easier to continue our conversations from the comfort of our own homes. Always, there is something to talk about even when there is nothing to talk about. Before Skype, I treasured long-distance phone calls with my mother, usually during the weekend when we could be less circumspect with the time difference and the cost per minute. Before Facebook, there were sporadic phone calls from childhood friends, the rhythm of home so achingly familiar, we fell softly into conversation, picking up where we left off years ago.

By telephone, we have delivered and received the most important news of our lives, from that which cannot be shared quickly enough: “I got the job!” “We’re getting married!” “I’m going to have a baby!” “It’s a girl!” to the kind that startles the silence too early in the morning or too late at night to be anything good. From my best friend, Audrey, so far away in Wales, calling to tell me her husband was killed outright in a car accident: “My darling is gone! My darling Kev is gone! Gone!”; To my best friend in America, Amanda, who, waiting for “benign,” answers before the end of the first ring, only to hear, “I have cancer.” Thus, two people are connected in an ephemeral silence that leaves each with nothing to hold on to:

photo (56)Writing a letter is different, with more time to shape our tidings with the very best words we have. I am sad that the letter-writing of my youth has fallen out of favor, snuffed out by e-mails that, regardless of font and typeface, are not the same. How I miss opening a mailbox made of bricks, to find the red, white and blue trimmed letter that was its own envelope, light as onion-skin, marked By Air Mail, par avion. And how glad I am to have saved so many to read and reread, these objets d’art, immortal reminders of the people I treasure and who treasure me.

In part, it is this sentiment that is behind the exquisite Letters of Note website, a veritable homage to the craft of letter-writing. Editor, Shaun Usher, has painstakingly collected and transcribed letters, memos, and telegrams that deserve a wider audience. Already, I have pre-ordered the book that has grown from the website, and you should too. Because I am of a time when telegrams came from America and other places, to be read by the Best Man at wedding receptions, I opted for the collectible first edition which is accompanied by an old-fashioned telegram.

Considering telegrams and old letters, and the heart laid bare on stationery this Valentine’s Day, I am reading again the letter of marriage advice from then future President Ronald Reagan to his son, Michael. Published in Reagan – A Life in Letters, there is both heart and craft in it:

Michael Reagan

Manhattan Beach, California
June 1971

Dear Mike:

Enclosed is the item I mentioned (with which goes a torn up IOU). I could stop here but I won’t.

You’ve heard all the jokes that have been rousted around by all the ‘unhappy marrieds’ and cynics. Now, in case no one has suggested it, there is another viewpoint. You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life. It can be whatever you decide to make it.

Some men feel their masculinity can only be proven if they play out in their own life all the locker-room stories, smugly confident that what a wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her. The truth is, somehow, way down inside, without her ever finding lipstick on the collar or catching a man in the flimsy excuse of where he was till three A.M., a wife does know, and with that knowing, some of the magic of this relationship disappears. There are more men griping about marriage who kicked the whole thing away themselves than there can ever be wives deserving of blame. There is an old law of physics that you can only get out of a thing as much as you put in it. 

The man who puts into the marriage only half of what he owns will get that out. Sure, there will be moments when you will see someone or think back to an earlier time and you will be challenged to see if you can still make the grade, but let me tell you how really great is the challenge of proving your masculinity and charm with one woman for the rest of your life. Any man can find a twerp here and there who will go along with cheating, and it doesn’t take all that much manhood. It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear. Do that and keep her still feeling a warm glow and you will know some very beautiful music. If you truly love a girl, you shouldn’t ever want her to feel, when she sees you greet a secretary or a girl you both know, that humiliation of wondering if she was someone who caused you to be late coming home, nor should you want any other woman to be able to meet your wife and know she was smiling behind her eyes as she looked at her, the woman you love, remembering this was the woman you rejected even momentarily for her favors.

Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is and what it can do to others. Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should. There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.

Love,

Dad

P.S. You’ll never get in trouble if you say ‘I love you’ at least once a day.

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