Danny Heitman’s “At Random”: For grad, only postal mail will do

I now own the dining set from my childhood home, so when my daughter addressed her high school graduation announcements this month, she sat at the same table where I had addressed my own graduation announcements three decades earlier. Moments like that suggest that things stay the same more than they change.

But watching my daughter take pen in hand to write the names of loved ones across envelopes, I knew that she lives in a different world than the one in which I grew up.

What struck me was how strange she looked with pen, paper and postage stamps around her. This was probably the first handwritten correspondence she’d done in months, maybe years. Except for the occasional thank-you note, she doesn’t write letters and almost never receives one. She’s come of age in an era governed by emails, texts and instant messages.

If the sight of her sitting with stationery seemed odd to me, my daughter felt even odder as she went about preparing her graduation announcements for the postman. The ritual was as quaint to her as basket-weaving or milking a cow. “How many should I put on each one?” she asked, holding up the book of stamps like a relic of the Titanic.

When I was her age, we often used our hands as a makeshift postage meter, placing a letter in the palm, sensing its heaviness, guessing the number of stamps it would need to reach its destination. Correspondence had weight back then — physical substance, tangible form.

“One stamp should do for each one,” I answered, holding an announcement and bobbing it slightly, like the arm of a scale.

The little rituals of postal correspondence — guiding a ballpoint across ecru paper, licking a stamp, sealing an envelope — were glacially slow for a young woman accustomed to running her fingers across a smartphone and sending dozens of messages across town in the blink of an eye. My daughter addressed three envelopes before getting tired and leaving the table for a break.

All of this reminded me of a column I’d written four years ago, when we spent one Saturday waiting for an acceptance letter from my daughter’s high school to show up in the front-porch mailbox. The school honors tradition about certain things, and believes that only postal mail will do in granting a student admission.

Our little vigil by the mailbox unfolded like one of those Jane Austen novels where the characters sit on pins and needles until a fateful piece of correspondence arrives.

I love the convenience of email and wouldn’t, on most days, trade it for older methods. But there are times, I know, when only an elegant piece of stationery will suffice. A note of gratitude. A wedding invitation. Or the commencement announcement that says your little girl has, rapidly and inexplicably, become a young woman.

Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.