A tribute to the handwritten note

Valentine's Day may have begun with a letter. According to one popular legend, this letter was passed on in the secrecy of a prison cell, where an ancient Roman priest, later to be canonized as St. Valentine, was awaiting execution. His letter would have been addressed to the jailor's daughter, a blind girl whom Valentine had cured and with whom he began a close friendship and correspondence. The friendship ended with Valentine's final letter before his martyrdom, signed, "From your Valentine."

The Valentine's Day we celebrate today has changed considerably since the days of St. Valentine. In many ways it is a public event, marked by highly visible expressions of sentiment -- hefty bouquets, elaborate fruit arrangements, other creative displays of affection. But do people still write letters?

Like the legendary notes exchanged between St. Valentine and his friend, handwritten letters are by nature private and hard to trace. Who knows whether people still write them, or how frequently? And isn't this mystery part of what makes letters so special? The intimacy of a handwritten letter is an essential part of its charm -- only those who write and receive them can attest to their value.

For those who grew up in more technologically modest times, before email and universal online sharing, letter-writing was the primary form of long-distance communication. Writing letters, posting them, and waiting weeks for a reply was a part of life, necessary for maintaining social connections, expressing affection, and making a good impression. Schools devoted considerable time to teaching penmanship and placed a special emphasis on cursive writing versus printing. Ask anyone over the age of 65, especially those who went to Catholic school, and they will likely have a story about learning Palmer Method cursive in grade school.

In more recent times, emphasis on handwriting has dwindled in public education, leading some to fear that traditional letter-writing may soon become a relic of the past. Schools in 41 states adopted the Common Core curriculum last year, which no longer mandates that students learn cursive or spend time perfecting their penmanship. While a small handful of states -- including Massachusetts -- have restored cursive to the curriculum, the debate continues: should practical computer skills take precedence over a skill that may no longer be necessary in our electronic age? Does it matter that children may not be able to exchange heartfelt notes when they get older?

As handwritten letters become more rare, they will likely become more endearing and valuable in ways that are hard to quantify. A handwritten thank you note can still be the perfect touch for a job seeker wishing to thank an employer for an interview, or a college applicant wishing to thank a teacher for a recommendation. In these cases, handwritten notes are wonderful vehicles for expressing our warmest, most human sentiments -- sentiments like gratitude, friendship, and love. Research suggests that letter-writing may also have health benefits. A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that people who wrote and delivered letters of gratitude to people they had not properly thanked for past services experienced a significant increase in happiness that lasted up to a month.

With Valentine's Day upon us, it is worth noting that letters make the stories of our closest relationships accessible and tangible in a way that electronic media cannot quite replicate. We know exactly which closet or drawer to find the letters we've saved and reread over the years: letters containing important details about our early romances, our parents, our close friends and loved ones. Simply holding the paper that a lost loved one wrote on years ago can inspire a powerful sense of connection. Squinting into the sea of electrons on a computer screen? Not so much. Handwritten letters open up windows to the past with the inimitable touch of the person who sat down for a few moments and wrote directly to us.

Barring an unforeseen global catastrophe, email and social networking are likely here to stay. Technological innovation will continue to evolve and influence the way we communicate. Computer skills will become more important in schools and in the workforce. While the handwritten letter may seem to be fading against the relentless rise of technology, it remains one of the most endearing ways to communicate personal sentiments. A handwritten letter from a loved one will always be worth saving, and this, at least, is not likely to change.

Adam Johnson is publications coordinator for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England. See www.youvilleassistedliving.org.