Magical Memories by
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Prompted By Snail Mail

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Dated 1941

I loved getting mail. While email is immediate, there was something gratifying, even sensual to HOLDING mail in your hand. You could see someone’s penmanship (mine was horrid; I was a straight A student, but C’s in handwriting. It has only grown worse over the years and I still write letters). There was the anticipation of waiting for a response to a letter sent, none of this instantaneous nonsense in texting (and what does it imply if the person DOESN’T respond right away)? You couldn’t cyberbully or sext. Life was simpler. You had a chance to think about what you wanted to convey. And hopefully no regrets after you hit “send”.

I have some very old letters, passed along through family members. My Featured photo dates to 1941 (note the postmark: it is BEFORE Pearl Harbor – my father joined up while he was still eligible, before turning 26; he couldn’t wait to join. He loved the camaraderie of the Air Corps and stayed in touch with his commanding officer his whole life. I found his Christmas card list on his desk after he died and wrote to his CO for several years after. We had a nice correspondence). My father was in the Army Air Corps (there was no Air Force yet). This letter was sent to his father, staying with one of Dad’s married sisters in Worcester, MA. He writes to let everyone know that he is well (he was never sent overseas. He taught navigation and was stationed in Sacramento throughout the war). The letter was passed on to various other siblings, each added a note. Somehow, it made its way back to Dad and, since all the family knows that I am the unofficial family historian, it rests safely with me.

I also have letters from the sanatorium in St. Louis where my grandmother Lizzie (for whom I am named) lived for much of her life. The head doctor reports to the oldest sister; these also were passed around to the brothers and sisters. It was agreed to not tell her that my father had entered the military, so she wouldn’t worry. My grandmother was bipolar before there was any sort of medical treatment and was permanently institutionalized when my father was 12 years old. He was raised by that sister who wound up in Worcester. I cherish these letters. They give me some insight into the thought processes of the elders of my family. What happens to our digital legacy these days?

I wrote about searching for my favorite camp counselor last week. I still have a few letters she sent me, including the one above on tissue-paper thin airmail paper. It is lovely to be able to go back and see what she had to say to me, but also reminds me of volumes of letters my brother sent home during the summer and autumn of 1967 when he was a Hiatt Scholar, studying in Jerusalem during his Junior year at Brandeis. His trip was delayed by the 6-Day War in June of 1967. He was at the Wailing Wall during the first High Holidays and subsequent fall festivals celebrated there since the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE ( for all you non-Jewish readers, that stands for “Common Era”, since we don’t speak in terms of “the year of our Lord”, which is what “AD” stands for) and our ancestors were dispersed by the Romans. He wrote of watching the jubilant old men, dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah. His words were vibrant and let us visualize the celebrations as if we were there.

My brother went on to be ordained as a rabbi, then receive a PhD in Judaic thought from Brown University. He is a brilliant scholar, speaker and author. My family eagerly gathered to share the letters he sent home on aerograms. They were revelations about what he was experiencing at an extraordinary period in Israel’s history. My mother saved those letters for years, but as she prepared to move into a life-care community near me in Greater Boston more than 25 years ago, my brother retrieved them, saving them for posterity. With all the awe and poetry of the written word, they beautifully capture a unique moment in time.

I recently came across a trove of correspondence between me and my older child from the late 1990s when he was away at summer camp. He had to send a letter home every week or he was not allowed to get his allowance. I retained more of my end of the of the correspondence. It got to the point where he would just send an empty envelope to us! He knew how to work the angles. There were no “forever” stamps then. They cost 32 cents.

I continue to think there are times when only something written will suffice. I always send a handwritten condolence note on personal, monogrammed stationary. Call me old fashioned, if you like. I was taught manners. I think it is important. The only time I do not use that note paper is if my note is too long to fit. I still write it long-hand (it is too personal to type on a computer), and will write a rough draft first, so I can think it through. Cannot edit or autocorrect my hand-written notes.

I also hand write thank-you notes, though I will tell my children that they may use a computer, as saying “thank you” is paramount. Getting those thank-you notes done for my younger child’s bar mitzvah was quite something, let me tell you. But they got done. They HAD to. That sort of failure was not an option in this household, even if he was barely functioning at that point in his life. (He was spectacular at his bar mitzvah; came through with flying colors, it was everything else in his life that gave us all pause.)

I still send out roughly 200 holiday cards with my “year in review” letter. I no longer put a personal note inside, but it goes in the mail. I don’t get nearly as many as I used to. Some are now emailed, others have just stopped sending them. I don’t know if they are too ill to send them, or just tired of the whole process, but I worry about some I didn’t hear from this year.


My piano used to be covered with cards. Certainly, the photo cards don’t stand up and are in the pile up front, but still, there is room for more.

I also continue to enjoy sending real birthday cards. Many folks now send ecards and those can be lovely. Indeed, Jacquie Lawson designs exquisite musical cards with a flourish and in such a way that you can reply to the sender, but I still think it is special to get something in the mail and see what personal greeting your friend or family member has written, what care the person has taken to select something that suits you, is the card humorous or heartfelt. Yes, I am decidedly old-fashioned that way.

I received this one for my last birthday just a month ago. Inside, the sender said, “it helps to be painted by a master”. I agree! She has known me since 10th grade and knows that I love art, so it was a wonderful choice of cards and I loved receiving it.

I still think it’s fun to get something in the mail that isn’t a bill or an insurance notice.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: old letters, condolence notes, holiday cards
Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. hillelk says:

    I too write personal notes for life cycle events, and other special events particularly in my children’s lives.
    I read the obits and scan Facebook to make sure I haven’t missed something/someone I should communicate with.

  2. Marian says:

    Great reminiscences, Betsy. Very cool that we both had correspondence from Israel. My penmanship was as bad as yours, but it didn’t stop me, like it didn’t stop you. Actually, writing all those cards and letters improved it!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, very cool that we shared aerograms from 1967, but unlike you, all that writing did NOT improve my writing! My dad got both my brother and me portable cassette players in 1970. I went off to Brandeis and he went off to Israel for two years of rabbinical studies (he was ordained two weeks before my marriage in June, 1974 and co-officiated at my wedding). My dad thought we would record long, verbal “letters” and send them to one another. That NEVER happened.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    I totally related to this, Betsy. Texts are short, often meaningless, and vanish quickly. Also, why would anyone save an emoji? Same with email. People don’t save it although it can come back to haunt you if you are a politician. Your story about your grandmother is so similar to my husband’s discovery that he had a “secret” grandmother who had been institutionalized most of her life after a “nervous breakdown.” My father’s sister moved to Israel in 1948, and I remember those aerograms very well. Their arrival was big news and passed among his siblings. Brava to you for sending hand-written cards and letters. And I love your piano!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. Very interesting how much of our histories we share and only know through this writing exercise (we also share our greater Detroit childhoods). Suzy and I have also discovered many common experiences and Marian and I share Brandeis (she transferred away, but still attended long enough to understand the sites and rituals I sometimes write about). Fascinating…

  4. Suzy says:

    Great story, Betsy, with your usual collection of perfect pictures! I love the anecdote about David being required to write home from camp and figuring out he could send an empty envelope. Early indications of a brilliant and creative mind! And good for you for continuing to send real holiday cards and birthday cards. I would love to be on the list for your holiday card!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Suzy. David’s acumen was amusing, but frustrating for those of us at home, actually wanting to KNOW what was going on with him. We know the parents of one of first camp couselors so the whole camp thing has come up with him over the years. He said it wasn’t a great experience, lots of bullying. We would have wanted to know that.

      Consider yourself added to my list! (Must go do that now, before I forget. I make any updates that have come in now so I am up-to-date by year-end.)

  5. I find it fascinating how many of you here have had similar experiences, and family histories!

    That Klimpt card of Emily Floge is one of my favorite paintings of his, and your friend has a lovely way with words.

    Betsy, I admire you for sending hand-written cards and notes. I don’t think it’s old-fashioned at all, just very thoughtful and special. It’s something I mean to do, have even listed it as a new year’s resolution, but just haven’t followed through on. Maybe you’ll be an inspiration for me to do that this year!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Barbara. A cousin read this story through the Facebook link and said it must be a family thing, as both her mother and uncle learned to write personal notes from their father (who was my grandmother’s brother). I learned from my mother. I commented that I received my first special note cards from an aunt and uncle in Toledo (my mother’s brother; my mother was a stickler for good manners). One of their daughters, still in Toledo and older than I, weighed in with a charming story. She said her parents fell in love through correspondence. Her mother was in Cleveland at the time, he was in Toledo. They were introduced through a friend and wrote letters. They met in March, married in Sept (perhaps in the ’30s). Our grandmother kept the letters. Then one of their children discovered them and my uncle destroyed them; evidently they were too personal. That is a pity. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have those letters now, with both parents gone?

      I hope I do inspire you, Barbara. You are a wonderful writer.

  6. Again Betsy I’m in awe of you in your role as family historian, your memory for family chronology, and the letters and memorabilia you’ve saved,

    Sadly old letters as well as photos, even baby clothes, saved by my parents and Danny’s, where lost when our basement storage locker was flooded at the time of Hurricane Sandy. We tried to save what we could, but much was irretrievable,
    I’m waiting for a prompt for Floods or Disasters to post about it!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Dana. Yes, I am the keeper of the flame. Sorry to hear you lost so much in Sandy. We were at a wedding in downtown NYC shortly after. They had to change venues for the wedding and reception on very short notice, but somehow pulled it off.

      Look at the search engine for “disasters”. We’ve had that prompt for Aug 29, 2016. I wrote about a flood in our house (we’ve had many in our basement and lost bags of our kids’ school papers and the like, but this was something else altogether). Now we have water-proofed our lower-level with back-up sump pump and a generator.

  7. Will do Betsy!
    And you can search on my blog link below for the post called COOKING WITH GAS.

    Wish our building’s basement had been water-proofed!

  8. Risa Nye says:

    Another fun post in response to this prompt! So many of us have similar stories. I wonder how many of us send actual cards on birthdays and holidays anymore. I just read that all the Papyrus stores are closing, so maybe that’s a clue. I treasure the letters I still have–some from my grandfather, some from my sister as she traveled the world. Such special memories we all have on paper!

  9. John Shutkin says:

    I shouldn’t be surprised by now, but continue to be amazed by your wonderful collection of memories and the fact that it also includes letters with the photographs. And what an array you have described here!

    I, too, love the “empty envelope” story about your son, particularly since my college roommate did the same thing with his “letters” to his parents as to proof of his continued existence. Indeed, his mother even packed the stamped and self-addressed envelopes with him when he went off each semester.

    And, as a fellow Christmas card writer (albeit an illegible one), bravo to you for also continuing the tradition. More broadly, you have done a terrific joy of describing the joy of both sending and receiving a personal written correspondence. Our children must consider us to be so quaint.

    p.s. As a depressing aside, I can’t help but note that I saw an item in the paper a day or so ago indicating that Papyrus is closing all its stores. Sic transit gloria….

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. Yes, I was impressed when you said you send out all those Christmas cards and knew that we were kindred spirits. Risa also commented on the closing of the Papyrus stores. I must get over to my local one and buy them out…hope I’m not too late!

  10. Betsy, I just wanted to add my voice to the others who lament the closing of Papyrus stores. I, too, send out holiday cards and generally make my own, but when I come up short, I head to Papyrus as they always have a beautiful selection of “almost handmade” cards. I wish I could insert a photo of the cards I bought there and sent out last year.

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