By Kathryn White
When a CBS News survey came out in 2021 about letter writing in the U.S., it surprised few to learn that the trend sloped downward.
Americans have come a long way since the “Great Age of Letter Writing” in the 18th century. The survey found 37% of 1,717 adults surveyed hadn’t mailed a hand-written letter in more than five years, and 15% had never sent one.
Data held constant across multiple age bands. Adults over age 65 were no more likely to be sending hand-written letters than 20-somethings. One nonagenarian in the West Highland neighborhood is bucking the trend. I met her last month just after wrapping up my column on Letters Against Isolation (LAI). Angela Lee has developed several pen pal connections through LAI and eagerly to points out she doesn’t feel isolated.
“I love receiving letters. That’s what started it all,” Lee said. “I write to older people and younger people. I can relate to both of them really well. My mother used to write to her sisters in Spanish. I was curious about that. And so she taught me to write in Spanish. I’ve never forgotten that. Sometimes I write letters in Spanish to my daughters, and then I quiz them afterwards. I ask, ‘What did I say?’ They always know.”
DaySpring Villa, where Lee lives, sets the letters they receive through LAI in a basket on a table where residents can sit and read them. Lee passed by the table one day and was intrigued.
“It amazed me,” Lee said. “They took the time to write those letters. So, I think, if they took the time, I shall take the time to answer them.”
Lee writes letters almost every day and has received letters from as far away as France. Her granddaughter supplies her with stamps and stationery. Lee showed me her hands and said that writing is good exercise for them.
“It’s getting hard for me to write, but people don’t seem to mind my messy letters,” she said.
One of Lee’s devoted pen pals traveled from Abiquiu, New Mexico, last year to visit her in Denver, bringing along some red chili to share. Another, Lee said, “wrote to me about her garden and little bunnies that happened to live in her garden. She started writing me tiny letters from Bunny, because we had started a conversation about how the bunnies were doing. Bunny became a part of our lives. She was crazy for her gardens.”
When Lee stopped hearing from this pen pal, she grew concerned. She knew the woman had retired and was living with her sister. So, she wrote to her sister. The sister wrote back, sharing that Lee’s pen pal had died. “What if I take her place?” asked the sister. And she has.
She’s been writing to Lee ever since. For Lee’s 90th birthday, LAI orchestrated a flood of dozens of birthday cards and letters, including one that unfolded into the shape of a large bouquet of flowers. Lee wanted to write each person back, but the task was overwhelming.
Instead, she took to Facebook to thank everyone. What would Lee’s life be like without all the letter writing? “Well, it makes me feel good,” Lee said. “Writing to all these people makes me feel good.”
Lee’s enthusiasm was contagious. Since meeting her, I’ve vowed to write more letters. I went online and bought a profusion of Forever stamps. I have a soft spot for stamps featuring interesting people from history. I ordered Toni Morrison, Eugenie Clark and George Morrison.
There were dozens of other options, from waterfalls, blueberries and tulips to skateboard art and women cryptologists of WWII. If, like me, you’re inspired to get back into letter writing, check out to Letters Against Isolation at www.lettersagainstisolation.com. Or write to me with your ideas for The Gray Zone. Send them to Denver North Star, P.O. Box 11584, Denver CO 80211. I’ll write you back, using one of my cool new stamps.
Kathryn has lived in north Denver since around the time the Mount Carmel High School building was razed and its lot at 3600 Zuni became Anna Marie Sandoval Elementary. She’s raised two children in the neighborhood, worked at several nonprofits and volunteered with the Alzheimer’s Association Colorado Chapter.