Valentine’s — a Red-Letter Day

Over a quarter century ago, when my wife and I were merely boyfriend and girlfriend, she gave me a vertical tin the size of a shoebox filled with candy. I still have it. The outside is red, gold and black, and features a regal (and uncharacteristically pacific) tiger. It is a vintage facsimile of an old Bright Tiger brand chewing tobacco tin, though the container my wife gave me held only chocolates. She brought it to me the morning my grandmother died, when we were still in college. She surprised me at the bus station, where I was awaiting a bus home. It was comfort food for the ride.
I still have the tin, though the lid no longer fits. I keep the container because I use it to store my wife’s love letters to me, and I am very fortunate: Over the years she has written me a lot of love letters. The lid rests about a half-inch over the top, and the tin seams are stretched like the waistband on a pair of maternity pants in week 36.
I am telling you about my tiger tin because Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and one of the casualties of the digital age is the handwritten love letter. Now, make no mistake: I love the digital age. If it weren’t for, I can’t imagine how I would keep up with the status and incomprehensible ramblings of friends and acquaintances (“Alessa feels like the inside of an Absolut bottle — blueberry, thank you very much”). If it weren’t for, I have no idea how I would get my fix of “F Troop” bloopers. Worse, if it weren’t for the digital age, I might actually have to spend my days trying to write, racking my brains for the perfect synonym for “claret.” Oh, wait: I can do that online, too.
But pulp and ink have become dinosaurs when it comes to romance. I’m a pretty romantic guy — to wit, I don’t give my wife replica team sports jerseys for Valentine’s Day — but still I have grown lazy when it comes to the pen and ink love letter. These days, I am far more likely to send it via e-mail or (shameless, I know) via Facebook.
And that means two things: First, I spend less time searching for the perfect metaphor or simile — or even making sure that my spelling has surpassed that of the average Civil War private — because, alas, e-mail is where grammar and style points go to die. Second, the sentiments, regardless of how poignant and profound they might be, will not in all likelihood be preserved. When was the last time anyone bothered to print out an e-mail that wasn’t subpoenaed? And a mere love letter? Oh, please.
Yet it’s wonderful to have that tin of love letters. I know my wife has the ones I wrote her, too. They are a trove of memories that surpasses old photos, old videos and old yearbooks. I study the dates. I savor the penmanship. I appreciate, even decades later, the idiosyncratic, inside joke.
When my friend, Adam Turteltaub, had been married nearly six months, his wife wondered aloud what the symbolic gift was for a half-year anniversary, and decided it must be pebbles. Consequently, on their six-month anniversary Adam bought his wife a box of Cocoa Pebbles cereal, which he gift-wrapped and gave to her with a card. This was 13 years ago, and she still has that card … and the cereal. (Adam admits he’s terrified his two young sons will now try to eat some very stale Pebbles, but that’s another issue.)
Today, in our world of digital video greetings, might Adam have sent her some electronic Pebbles instead? An image and an e-card? Perhaps. And that wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful a gift — though it might have been safer if you have growing boys in the house.
In any case, this year I am taking the time to write my wife a love letter for Valentine’s Day. By hand. With a pen. I can’t stem the electronic tide, (and, in fact, I wouldn’t want to). But I can add a drop or two of ink to the sea.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on February 10, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.