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TideWriters Tales
Communication Now and Then
by Catherine C. Brooks

     When one asks you, ďHave you checked todayís mail?Ē It isnít concerning the postal service as one asked until the latter years of the twentieth century. But instead, itís e-mail about which they are asking. A short one-sentence message without even a date or salutation is most popular. Yet it could be a paragraph or two, or one or more pages of reading, including pictures. And sometimes it directs one to a URL for abundance of information of your choosing.

     The other popular question: ďHas anyone called?Ē Of course, they are referring to telephone calls. But most donít even need to ask that question since their phone had a message on it, sayingĒ call my cell phone number, xxx xxx xxxx if you need to contact me at onceĒ. If they donít have a cell phone, their answering machine will have any important calls recorded with phone numbers, enabling them to return the calls. We live in a more technical than personal world today.

     I remember when e-mail wasnít, and few in the rural areas of Virginia had telephones. We wrote letters and post cards. There were business letters, friendly letters, love letters and letters to pen pals. An irate letter was mailed now and then, which the writer regretted sending when tempers cooled.

     In the last of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, post cards were the main source of personal mail. ďLet me know you arrived safely,Ē meant send a post card. If you had traveled to another state, you might be home before they received the post card you sent soon after you arrived. However, some folk just traveled to another section of the county, visiting kin or friends. Remember they traveled on foot or by horse and carriageówhether buggy, a fancy carriage or wagon. Later, a few had cars. The card didnít leave the county so arrived promptly.

     There were plain tan post cards with an imprinted stamp, costing a penny. Or one might want to purchase a picture card, displaying a scene in the city or town they visited, placing a penny stamp on it. Others had quotations or cartoons, requiring the same postage. I have a box of a few hundred cards that the Brooks family saved. Iíve also given each of my two children one of their Great Aunt Irene Brooksí filled scrapbooks of old post cards that I inherited from her estate. 

     I learned that the Jamestown Exposition in 1907 actually took place at Norfolk Naval Base from a recent loan of a familyís post card collection. Each house built for the celebration, plus the large Machinery and Transportation Building were on individual post cards. Of course by that time postage was a penny, double what it had been some years earlier. Iíve found no record for what they sold the cards, surely not over a few cents apiece.

     Today, we know what happened on the other side of the globe if the news is bad or exciting within minutes of the occurrence. Television and radio crews stay on the alert at home and abroad. Most of us have both and feel its imperative. Computers are on with the Internet rolling around the clock in many homes. Classes are taught the older people, who didnít learn this technique in school because it didnít exist. Others just werenít interested until all their friends had Internet. It saved, being less expensive than toll calls and traveled quicker than if mailed by United States Postal Service. 

     Life was different without telephones, computers, televisions and radios. In rural areas, one didnít talk to the next-door neighbor over the fence because houses were far from the fence or ditch that divided the properties. In the coastal counties of rural Virginia, we lived near enough to walk to a neighborís house once in awhile. But where I lived, I had no girl friends nearby after my cousins moved from Fitchetts to Norfolk where their parents found work.

     With little else to do after I learned my three Rís, I read and became interested in pen pals. I wrote a girl named Peggy from our tenth year until long after we married. She lived on Eastern Shore in Maryland. We both lived on farms and had other mutual interest, serving the Lord as our Savior. Once Peggy took a short trip with friends to Rehobath Beach on the Atlantic Ocean. She mailed me a post card from the Beach, depicting a car pulling an outer house. The caption read, ďWhen you gotta go, you gotta go.Ē My parents thought us a bit naughty. But we called ourselves, ďBest Friends.Ē

     About 1952, Kirby and I made a trip to Baltimore for our business, ďThe Craftsman Shop.Ē Peggy and her husband lived near enough our route that we could detour by their house on the way. After Peggy married, she had moved to her husbandís farm near the Chesapeake Bay. Then her letters had become exciting because the state had chosen a site near their farm for the foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. And she had pled we pay a visit, crossing the high bridge across the Bay. The view was unlike anything I had seen since the Washington Monument. Boats looked like toys and people barely specks. But I didnít want to cross it in a windstorm because I felt we swayed at times, being so high above the Chesapeake Bay. What a pleasant afternoon and night we had, catching up on news we neither had had time to write. We both had one child. Our son was at Grandmaís house, but we enjoyed playing with Joy. Kirby and Orville, Peggyís husband, became friends at once. They spent the evening in the living room talking while Peggy and I visited in the kitchen. We did dishes before just sitting at the table pouring out feelings we hadnít been able to express in letters.

     I had other pen pals from the western part of Virginia. Margaret Wade and I became very close. She married before her husband went overseas during World War II, and today her oldest son is a lawyer in the Northern Neck area. Iím sure he doesnít remember when he visited my family as a tiny lad. We only had our son at the time, and he was an only child. After our children were grown, we paid two short visits to Margaretís home in Charlottesville, where she and her husband had located after his discharge. The last time I phoned her house, she had suffered from a mild stroke. So her younger son moved in with her. I canít reach her at present, but we kept in regular touch for more than 50 years by letters and a few phone calls.

     Today my only sister lives in Salem, Ohio. Her husband isnít well enough to travel or to be alone. However we keep close with long weekly letters and an occasional 30-minute telephone conversation. When I canít reach her by phone for some reason, I e-mail her neighbor with a message. I donít regret the hours I spend writing because we need each other. I pour out burdens I feel better untold at home, and she does the same. I visited her for two weeks in 1999, and her last one-week trip to Mathews was October 2002. 
Iím thankful the mail stills travels. 

     Some wonder at the high prices of postage, especially of parcel post. Lack in volume of first class letters has made the charges imperative. People canít believe my sister and I still write long letters, but itís the only way our relationship has grown dearer. An e-mail daily may serve the purpose, but she doesnít have Internet. I just mailed a letter with 60 cents in stamps on it. I have one from her that Iíll enjoy at the close of the day. 
Some folk pay their bills online, receive invoices online and shop. But the package will either come by parcel post or a delivery truck. Mail must to continue to travel over the miles.

     Some feel catalogs help keep the post office in business. They do help keep the deficit down. I receive many that go in the trash, but since I wear womenís petite sizes, I order most of my clothing from catalogs. Few stores have my size, and if they do, there are few styles. Now that I find walking an effort, shopping at home has become a pleasure with more to choose from than I ever saw when I went to town. So I pay postage on the items that I order. I seldom need to return an item, but if I do, itís double postage.

     Magazines and newspapers, not delivered to the house, also come by mail. And if one plans to read the periodical regularly, they save considerably by subscribing. So whatever your life style, keep mail in your box whether at home or in a post office. Donít let our oldest form of correspondence become extinct. 

©2004 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved. Contact Catherine C. Brooks at 


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