TV producer Martha Williamson is still a believer in the value of a handwritten letter.
- Posted on May 14, 2014
Like most people these days, I can’t imagine life without e-mail. Texting is even more convenient, especially since I have two teen daughters. But there’s something about a letter, something more personal, more meaningful.
It says that someone took time to put on paper what they felt. Sometimes people reveal something they might not have told you any other way, something that can touch your life forever.
Let me tell you about three letters that made a difference to me.
Freshman year of college I was struggling. I’d ventured far from home, from Colorado to Williams College in western Massachusetts.
Williams was and still is one of the most academically challenging colleges in the country and looks like a movie set: ivy-covered walls, Gothic columns, expansive green lawns in a charming village.
It seemed as though half my classmates had gone to boarding school. They’d already lived away from home and arrived on campus with an air of sophistication I couldn’t match. (All I knew of preppies was from the movie Love Story.)
I’d been named “Outstanding Senior” at Denver South High and was the editor of the school yearbook. I’d led my church youth group and won a prestigious scholarship. None of that seemed to count for much with my accomplished classmates.
But I loved to sing, and I was cast as the lead in the Freshman Revue. Finally something at college I could excel at! The rehearsals and performances didn’t allow much time for studying, and then there were friends to make and parties to go to.
Despite my straight A average in high school, I didn’t have good study habits. My first college report card proved it. I sat on my dorm-room bed, staring at C’s and D’s.
I knew my parents had gotten a copy of my grades. My mother was an advocate for women’s education and the treasurer of an international organization of university women. My dad ran his own business and was a pillar of the community. They’d been so proud I was following in their footsteps.
I could have called home, but long-distance calls were expensive then. Besides, telling my parents, “I couldn’t cut it in college. I’m so sorry I’ve disappointed you” hardly seemed attractive.
Mail was delivered to the student union, where every week I’d find waiting for me a thick packet of Denver news clippings from Mom with a “Daddy says hi” tacked on. I put off checking my mailbox but I couldn’t avoid the student union forever.
Finally I walked in and Mrs. Marlowe, who sorted our mail, announced, “You’ve got something.” I peeked inside my mailbox. No clippings this time. A letter. Two letters.
I grabbed them and sat on a bench outside to read. My dad’s letter was typed on his business stationery, onionskin paper that crinkled in my shaking hands.
The keys on his old Smith Corona would strike the paper so hard that some letters were raised like Braille and others made holes. I could see through the f ’s and the o’s. I could hear his voice, quiet, firm, kind.
“I understand you are struggling. We have all been there,” he wrote. Dad, struggle? He always seemed so confident! “We all fail sometimes. We disappoint ourselves. And our family. But those who deserve to be at the top, when they fail, get right back up to the top again. And I know you will.”
Then he quoted a Scripture: “From those to whom much is given, much is required.”
I put down the letter, running my fingertips across the paper. Dad wasn’t ashamed of me. He believed I could succeed. If only I could believe in myself as he did!
Then I opened the envelope from Mom, addressed in her generous, unmistakable hand. As I read, the miles between us disappeared and her words went straight to my heart.
“I suspect you are carrying burdens and feeling overwhelmed...perhaps you feel guilty about choices that you are not proud of....” I hadn’t told her about the partying. She knew.
“This is the time when everything we’ve taught you will kick in. Persistence. Forgiveness. Faith. Remember, you can tell us anything, but if you can’t, there is always One you can go to.”
I’d never heard Mom speak so personally about God. About needing him. She sang in our church choir and we said grace at dinner, but here, in this letter, she was sharing something much deeper. She was sharing her relationship with God.
He wasn’t someone I’d left behind when I came east for college. He was right here, ready to help. All I needed to do was talk to him.
I did, often. College got much better. My grades improved. I joined the Ephlats, an a cappella group that sang at dinners and concerts. I discovered a passion for writing. I also fell in love with a guy in the Ephlats.
Steve was three years older, a smart, thoughtful scientist. I thought we were the perfect match, the soprano and tenor harmonizing together, happily ever after.
Steve graduated and went off to grad school at Cornell. Ithaca, New York, wasn’t that far from Williamstown, Massachusetts. I figured I’d see him on weekends. But I didn’t hear a word from him, not a call, not a letter. I took his silence to mean it was over between us.
We’d had long conversations about what we believed, what we hoped to do in life. Had it been just some end-of-college fling for him?
I’d thought freshman year was rough. This was devastating. Now I dreaded going to the student union and seeing nothing more in my mailbox than the usual packets from Mom. Please, Lord, I prayed, make this heartache go away.
Then one day, Mrs. Marlowe, no doubt detecting my misery, said hopefully, “You’ve got something!”
I opened my box and took out a blue card. “Undeliverable. Postage due,” it read. “What does this mean?” I asked.
“Someone’s sent you something without enough postage. You’ve got to go to the post office in town and pay the balance to pick it up.” Mom probably forgot to put enough stamps on her packet.
It could wait. There was too much going on—classes, papers to write, concerts with the Ephlats, anything to distract me from my sadness. It wasn’t until weeks later that I passed the post office and remembered the postage-due card in my bag.
I walked up the marble steps and handed the card to the clerk behind the counter. I paid 25 cents and was given a thick envelope. I recognized the handwriting immediately. Steve’s.
I didn’t even make it all the way down those marble steps. I just sat and read. It was a long letter, covering both sides of eight pages. No wonder it had arrived postage due! Steve wrote how challenging grad school was, how he missed me.
Mostly he wrote about the talent he saw in me and how he cherished our relationship. “I would like to see you again. I’m hoping to visit campus on the weekend of...”
I almost screamed there on the post-office steps. He meant this weekend. Just a few days from now! He’d written weeks before and must have figured I’d given up on him. I dashed to a phone and called him, never mind the long-distance bill.
“Of course I want to see you,” I told him. And to this day, I will never forget seeing him standing at my door three days later.
No, I didn’t marry Steve. You can’t always write the script for your life and expect everybody to play the parts that you want them to. But he ended up being a terrific friend. He encouraged me to pursue a career in television that led to producing and writing the hit show Touched by an Angel.
Steve and I are still good friends and sing together with the Ephlats at reunions back at Williams. To think we might never have spoken again if he hadn’t written that letter!
I could tell you about other letters, especially the inspiring mail I got from fans of Touched by an Angel. But it should be no surprise that I believe in the power of letters. You can hear someone very clearly through the written word. They might share the secrets of their faith or their heart.
A letter can restore a relationship or change the world. Just think: Half the New Testament is made up of letters, mostly from Paul, but also from Peter, James, John and Jude. Letters are forever.
That’s why I decided to write a new TV series about a team of lost-mail detectives who help reconnect the recipients and senders of undeliverable letters. Signed, Sealed, Delivered premiered this spring on the Hallmark channel; the pilot episode may even remind you of the love letter I almost didn’t get.
The message is simple and true: Letters can touch our lives in mysterious and unexpected ways. And even if they arrive late, sometimes they’re delivered right on time after all.
Download your FREE ebook, The Power of Hope: 7 Inspirational Stories of People Rediscovering Faith, Hope and Love.