The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity. ~Walt Whitman
I don’t have the original handwritten letter. I don’t even have the original news article where it was shared. I have a photocopy of a taped-together column. And it’s one of my most treasured pieces of family history.
My great-great-uncle Sam Lisle served during World War I. He was killed in France on October 22, 1918, mere days before the armistice.
I wish I knew more about him. Sure, there are a few stories handed down. But his time in this world was brief. There wasn’t a span of decades to pass along. Maybe that’s why this taped-together newspaper column means so much.
It was a letter he’d written and sent to the local paper in Arizona, where he’d been working on a ranch. It’s filled with courage, with love for country — with youthful naiveté. With unawareness that less than a month later, he would pass from this earth.
Fritz gave us a pretty good dose of gas once, but we all came through bully. We have got a dandy gas mask. I kind of had a fear of that gas before I got to the front, but now I don’t. If a fellow will just hold his head and not get excited there is not much danger. We have got Fritz skinned with our gas masks more ways than a farmer can whip a mule. …
The machine guns were the worst we had to face. They were spitting fire in every direction. We made about six miles that day, and it was a scene that will never be forgotten by me. Our company only lost a few. As we advanced we passed the dead and wounded and saw six prisoners giving up, while men were running here and there and everywhere. …
If any of you that read this care to drop me a line, it sure would be appreciated.
My heart breaks: Sam’s letter to the newspaper wasn’t received or printed until after his death. That’s just how long correspondence took back then. Save family and close friends, it’s possible Sam never had a line from anyone.
But Sam knew that the length of time it took to hear back from someone didn’t matter. Instead, he knew he had to reach out anyway. He knew that those he loved were worried about him, that they wondered what fears and lack he faced even as they hoped against hope things weren’t as bad as they’d heard.
How did my great-great-grandparents cope with it, that unbearable tension between being proud of their son’s service to his country and wishing they could keep him safe at home? I can’t imagine. I can imagine, though, that having a few of their son’s last words in hand made the grief more bearable. Not resolved, of course, because it never was — but bearable.
Search for letters from World War I, and you can find thousands of examples of the same bravery and homesickness Sam expressed. Truth? 100 years gone by hasn’t changed the need for connection and support.
Words matter. And making time to encourage others matters — whether with your words to them or helping them find their voice to come alongside another.
Words have always been celebrated in my family. Storytelling, laughter, endless good books … There was never a question of the power of words or the expectation we would use words wisely.
I was introduced early to letter writing as a unique grace in the field of words — before I ever knew of Sam’s letter. My mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother (Sam’s sister) all left beautiful examples of the importance of the written word. And my mama is going strong!
They wrote thanks. They wrote sympathy. They wrote congratulations. They wrote how their gardens were growing. They wrote their babies’ firsts. They wrote recipes. They wrote things that made them laugh and things that tore their hearts. They wrote stories handed down through generations. They wrote truth. But nothing they wrote was self-serving.
These amazing women framed everything with an eye toward what would encourage their readers. A new mama struggling? My ladies would offer empathy, hope, a hilarious story from what their own babies did — and assurance that the sun still rose the next day! Loss and suffering that threaten every hope? They knew. Too well. But they willingly offered their scars as lifelines to others in agony.
What about the men? They’ve all been experts at showing love by doing — building tree houses, building real houses, taking us ice skating, showing us baby rabbits hidden among potato vines or purple alfalfa, teaching us how to handle money, helping us process life. They loved us best by providing for our every need. But even they wrote letters.
And I’ll tell you: The handful of letters from my daddy and granddad and grandpa are especially dear because it took a lot for them to express love in writing. Those sometimes-wobbly few lines are worth more than any gold-gilded tome.
I don’t remember the moment I fell in love with writing letters. I’ve always welcomed the feel of paper and pen — and the truth that a timely word is a good thing (Proverbs 15:23). I know the joy of opening my mailbox to find a hand-addressed note, and I want others to have that same joy.
I don’t save texts or emails, though each is received with deepest gratitude. No … I save handwritten letters and cards. The love I can hold knowing my loves touched that same paper.
Connect with your own loves in whatever way you can. Do. But take time as often as possible to share a handwritten note. Urge your loves to do the same. It doesn’t have to be long. It should never be complicated. You don’t need articles or books on the art of letter writing.
It all comes down to one thing: Your words in your handwriting will reach the heart of another unlike anything else.