SARASOTA, Fla. — Some 2,000 years before the printing press became a thing, a queen of Persia named Atossa did something historians say had never been done before. Stylus in hand, she committed her thoughts to parchment and, in 500 B.C., produced the world’s first recorded letter.
For the next two and a half millennia, handwritten notes and letters dominated long-distance communication between friends and foes alike, before the 21st century digital onslaught reduced handwriting to a quaint notion. And yet, even today, few emotional touchstones transcend obsolescence like the handwritten letter. Just ask a couple of military moms spending Mother’s Day without their sons.
“Honestly, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Sue Meyer of Sarasota, who bid her son Connor farewell in March as the 22-year-old headed off for basic training at the Marine base in Parris Island. “The thought of not being able to see him and talk to him every day — I couldn’t fathom it.”
Until recruits complete three months of boot camp, contact with the outside world via phone, email, or other real-time modes is prohibited. Going cold turkey without so much as a “Hey, Mom, I’m fine” on the voicemail can be an ice bath. “Going into his room, I cry,” says Meyer. “I cry going to the grocery store and not getting Cool Ranch Doritos because we don’t want to eat them because he loved them.”
Deanna Burton of Myakka City was so distraught over the three-month blackout when her son Dalton went off to basic training at Fort Benning in 2017, she took daily selfies of her “external presence,” archived them in a photo journal as a form of therapy, and shared them with Dalton when he finally came home.
“I started putting text on the pictures, expressing how I was feeling,” she recalls. “And each day that goes by, I get a little color back, the bags aren’t as bad, you know what I mean?”
In order to cope, both moms found themselves at the mercy of a hopelessly ancient exercise that began in Asia when Queen Atossa decided to get something off her chest 2,500 years ago. They wrote letters, without any hope of instant gratification. And they waited for responses at the mailbox. The snail mailbox.
Dalton is an Army specialist at Fort Bragg now, and staying in touch is, once more, just a keystroke away. Video chats seem to work best. But there are no more letters. Which is too bad, Burton says.
“It’s easy to put ‘L U Mom’ or ‘love you’ in an email,” Burton says. “But when the young man you’ve raised writes and says ‘I know I fought against your rules sometimes, but you’re the best mom ever,’ or ‘I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for you’ — nothing can compare with that. I’ve saved all his letters, and I’ve arranged them in chronological order. Because that’s something I can go back to in 10, 20, 30 years and enjoy.”
‘Something from me every day’
For Meyer, who will watch Connor graduate on May 31, the waiting game’s end is just a few weeks off. But those snail mail exchanges have been made a lot easier by — gulp! — a downloadable computer app called Sandboxx.
Founded in 2015 by Marine Corps veteran Sam Meek, the free app lets subscribers write a letter and attach a photo, which Sandboxx will deliver in hard-copy form to the recruit, along with an addressed envelope to the sender and a stamp. That clear invitation to reply requires the receiver to communicate in longhand. Letters on both ends submitted before 5 p.m. are guaranteed a next-day delivery.
“Depending on where you’re at, a letter can take up to a week to reach its destination. But next-day delivery removes a lot of anxieties and worries,” says Sandboxx chief marketing officer Shane McCarthy. “We’ve sent two and a half million letters over the past four years.”
Bundled pricing starts at $3.99 a letter, and bulk buys can bring it down to $3.33 per. Sue Meyer tries to write a letter every day, though the 3,000-character limit drives her “cuckoo.” But she’ll also take pen to paper on Tuesday in hopes that the note will reach Parris Island by Saturday.
“I’m unrealistically thinking the Marine Corps is giving him a letter every day,” she says. “But in my mind, it’s given me comfort to know my son is getting something from me every day. I know Connor’s schedule is busy, but I’ll give him a lot of credit. I’d say between all of us (family members), we probably get two to three letters a week. And it’s just such an awesome thing for a parent, to hear back.”
As with Burton’s son, Meyer says Connor’s putting thoughts to paper has evoked some real surprises.
“Honestly, when he first started writing, it was like a confessional, like ‘I’m so sorry for anything I’ve ever said nasty.’ But we’ve always believed in Connor,” Meyer says, “and the fact that he’s so close to obtaining his dream — we’re all so thrilled.”
There’s also this: Connor has told her on occasion that he can’t find his Sandboxx letters, which makes Meyer suspect he’s been giving stamps away to fellow recruits. She has this image in her mind of a mail-call announcement where some recruits get nothing. Meyer recalls a moment at Parris Island when the family dropped him off.
“I saw three kids with nobody there. One little girl was 17 years old,” Meyer says. “And I said, ‘May I hug you?’ and they all said sure. I told them how proud I was of them, and I pointed out Connor and said, if you want a letter, tell him to let me know.”
Not even the most intimate letters will compare to a face-to-face reunion, and things have happened in Connor’s absence that his family has saved for that moment. And, as with Deanna Burton, once the rookie leaves boot camp, letter-writing will likely be a thing of the past once more.
“I’ve always written thank-you notes, that’s how my mother raised me. But other than that,” Meyer says, “I guess I haven’t written a letter in ...” She pauses, unable to remember. "A long time ... a long time. I think it’s sad, honestly, that we don’t do this enough. Because I love to re-read them.
“Maybe it’s just my family. We’re all so sentimental, it’s ridiculous.”