The Human Touch

My father will be eight-five this year, and he doesn’t like the computer.  He has one, don’t get me wrong, but he doesn’t like the impersonality of it.  Dad has seen a lot of changes over his lifetime, and I think he has adapted pretty well.  But how do you say good-bye to things or practices that you think have value?

For instance, writing letters on stationery.  Have you noticed that, other than note cards, stationery is hard to find?  I’m sure it is because people send e-mails instead of writing letters anymore but, to me at least, there is something invaluable and intensely personal about a letter, and I hate to see them go by the wayside.  I am reading My Life in France, and it is based mostly on letters that Julia Child and her husband, Paul, wrote to friends and family.  I have my own collection of letters from back when people sent them, and I value them as a primary source of the history of my life and of my family.  Letters and cards are different from e-mail.  For me, at least, it is more pleasing  to touch the paper that my relatives and friends took the time to write and to mail, to savor the attention it took , than it is to save an e-mail.  Don’t get me wrong; I value the communications I receive in e-mail.  But I can’t look at the signature or the handwriting and know who they are from.  I think Dad’s right; e-mail is just more impersonal.

One of the things that make letters personal, to me anyway, is the handwriting.  I have marveled before at the wonderful cursive writing that my parents have.  My mother even won an award for her cursive.  I, on the other hand, struggled to get a star in handwriting, and I actually only managed to do that during one grading period in fifth grade.  My cursive is readable, but the small muscle control that it took to write to the standard was just beyond me.   Still, I got there, and I knew that signatures meant something.  Otherwise, why would you have to sign, say, your marriage license?  Or your passport application?  Or even your tax return?

Yet signatures, too, are going by the wayside in favor of technology.  When my daughter checks in to her training sessions, she does so not with her signature, but with her thumbprint.  One of her friends doesn’t punch a time card when he goes to work.  He lets a machine scan his hand print.  And when you go to the store and use your credit card, you don’t have to sign sometimes if you have spent less than twenty dollars, or maybe less than fifty.  If signatures don’t mean anything, then why do you have to sign if you spend over that amount?  Why do signatures make a difference?

When we applied for our passports yesterday, we had to write our full names in cursive, and the lady who took our application said the post office really has a problem with people doing that.  Some people don’t know what cursive is and, even if they do, have never signed their middle names in cursive.  The simply don’t know how to form the letters.

Maybe our grandchildren will never learn how. My son told me that the school system in which my grandsons go to school has done away with cursive in the curriculum.  Their justification is that people use the computer all the time, so printing will be good enough.  Maybe.  And maybe they are just eliminating cursive because there is such a push on for math, and science, and reading, and there is just not enough time in the school day to teach children cursive, too.  Maybe something’s got to go, but when cursive goes, what will we lose?

I still have the one and only love letter that my husband wrote to me.  It’s tucked away, and when I read it, I smile and see the man he was at the time.  He still looks the same to me.   The hubby traveled for work, you see.  He was gone from Sunday night to Thursday night and the kids and I, in those pre-cell phone days, had our only contact with him on Tuesday night if he managed to make it to a payphone.  We waited impatiently for those calls.  In those, and in the letter, we touched someone that we loved.  I couldn’t save the phone calls to remember that time, even though I know he went to great effort to make them.  My only physical memento of that stage of our lives is that letter, a letter that my husband held to write to me and that I hold to remember.

Will reminiscing be the same when you go to a machine to read your husband’s  e-mails?  Will you cherish your grandfather’s thumbprint as much as you cherish his signature?  What will you do if your computer crashes?  Where will your past be then?

Changes happen, I know.  And we adapt.  But sometimes I wonder if our descendants will even know the touch of humanity the way we have known it, and it pains me to know that they probably won’t realize what it is that they have missed.


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December 2009
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