Gavin MacFadyen: Letters leave a legacy for the next generation - The Buffalo News

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Gavin MacFadyen: Letters leave a legacy for the next generation

Email is no longer just for the living. There are now a plethora of companies that offer posthumous email services – thus redefining forever the concept of “unlimited Internet access.”

I’m not sure if the chance to send a final message is one that should be celebrated. “Hi, how you doing?” received from someone who has gone to the great beyond might just border on bad taste.

None of these companies mentions the emotional trauma that could come from accidentally deleting Uncle Charlie’s valediction along with the latest Viagra ad.

This service certainly made me realize I was out of the loop. For many, writing (i.e. the antiquated notion of putting pen to paper) is a thing of the past. In fact, we may be one small step away from turning into cyborgs.

Walking around with our smartphones, laptops and MP3 players, it’s sometimes hard to tell where technology stops and the human being begins: “I’d like you to meet my son, Daniel. Is there anywhere to plug him in?”

We are not bits and bytes or digital signals. We are the papers we leave behind.

As a lawyer, I know the value of paper and how events – unless recorded – disappear as though they had never occurred at all.

Electronic footprints are ephemeral. St. Paul wrote letters to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians. I am sure none of his emails would have survived 2,000 years because the CD they were stored on would surely have had Pepsi spilled on it by now.

Choosing email over ink means we have less to leave behind us than ever before. What are the implications for our personal trails?

While sorting through boxes of family keepsakes, I found a postcard written by my grandfather to my grandmother before their marriage. It was sent from Pennsylvania and he wrote, “Erie is a very pretty city. Everybody seems to be in a rush and auto traffic is thick.” It was dated Aug. 23, 1929. There was personality in the slant of his handwriting. If I looked long enough, I could begin to divine my own personality as well.

Letters cast shadows. There is something robotic and sterile about the keyboard. When composing, there is no room for afterthoughts written in the margin or crossed-out words to mimic and reflect our thought processes while writing. That intimacy, that connection between writer and reader, is lost.

Letters speak of dreams held – and lost. As individuals, we are born alone and die alone, but in the middle we belong to a group – of family, of friends, of community – that defines and shapes our lives.

We also belong to a changing world. Letters leave a living piece of it across generations. That is the simple joy of letters – the fact that they can be passed down or accidentally discovered. Who can forget the arrival of a letter from a loved one?

Each reader changes the document in some way – a smudge here, a crease there. The older the letter, the more it provokes us into contemplating the transience of that which once must have seemed eternal.

We should continue to write not only for ourselves but for our legacy. An important clue to who we were, individually and collectively, will be in the letters we leave. They are at once a testament of moment and circumstance but also a historical record of time, culture and ourselves. They reflect a tangible humanity to which no email can aspire.

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