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Published: 2/9/2003

Sealed with a kiss

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Dorothy Smith holds one of the poems written by her late husband, Jon Smith, and an early photo of him. She says his writing was 'almost like Keats and Shelley.' Dorothy Smith holds one of the poems written by her late husband, Jon Smith, and an early photo of him. She says his writing was 'almost like Keats and Shelley.'
ALLAN DETRICH Enlarge

The lines of communication between Carole and Michael Chizmar are long, strong, and reinforced by the written word.

It's often the notes Michael tucks into the lunch he packs daily for Carole, his wife of 32 years.

After she brought home the same, uneaten apple for several days, his message was, “Eat the apple, Eve.” When he wrote “I Love You” on a banana, her co-workers were so tickled they photocopied it. She's found endearing sticky-notes inside cupboards, and on cereal boxes, shower curtains, and her car's windshield.

“It makes my day. And it makes me know he pays attention to me and cares about what makes me happy,” says Ms. Chizmar of Perrysburg.

Adds her husband: “I love my wife. It's fun. It keeps things alive. It gives us something to laugh about.”

From time immemorial, love letters have united hearts separated by time and space. Focused on the beloved, they often bring out the best in the writer, expressing warmth, passion, even nobility.

For the lucky recipient, love letters may inspire or ignite, affirm or amuse, create joy or anticipation. Often, they're a telescopic glimpse into the writer's soul. Usually more deliberate than the spoken word, writing permits grace and precision. We can refine the first draft, select paper and ink, sleep on it before sending it.

And even the briefest message of endearment, as the Chizmars' exchanges demonstrate, can make the heart sing.

“It makes me happy,” said Ms. Chizmar.

Jerome and Judy Cook of Delta met through letters. It was 1973 and she had just graduated from high school. Her brother was in the U.S. Army and suggested she correspond with his new buddy. She suspects her brother didn't much care for her boyfriend at the time.

Judy and Jerome met three months later and hit it off. Love blossomed through their correspondence, and they were married the following year.

Decades later, their letters had an unintended consequence. As they planned their 25th anniversary celebration, the youngest of their three sons was struck by a car and seriously injured. They went through their old letters and photos.

“It helped us. When you suffer through tough times, it makes you really appreciate that significant other. We realized how much we loved each other and cared about each other. And how we really wanted children,” she said.

Re-reading their letters transports them. “You feel like you want to smile all the time. You have all those feelings you had when you were first a couple,” she said.

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In response to a question The Blade posed a few weeks ago about whether hand-written love letters are extinct, some argued that the message, not the medium, is key.

“Are you kidding?” e-mailed one reader. “There have probably never been more love letters written in the history of the world than are being written this very day! ... Countless thousands of Internet romances begin with love letters via e-mail and may move onto eventual marriage. I know mine did!”

Asked New York poet and professor Harriet Zinnes: “Isn't it natural that with every new means of communication lovers will find a way to make use of the new method? There is no doubt, however, that the lover receiving such a communication would prefer it to be hand written. It is like experiencing another kiss, another meeting of body to body, and the Internet, of course, is many steps away from such closeness.”

Others say the hand-written letter, with its unique loops and slants, cannot be replaced by e-mails because personality, to some degree, resides in the hand.

“The hand is certainly a personal code, and the flourishes, whether intentional or accidental, are marks of the individual,” said Joel Lipman, professor of art and English at the University of Toledo. “I see students in creative writing, when they write poems, [they] tend to use [computer] fonts that are script-like typeface, almost to echo the missing hand of the writer.”

Even a single letter of the alphabet, such as the initial of the beloved, takes on special meaning, he said. People inscribe initials on rippling biceps and on tree trunks.

After the Huston family got a computer, Irja Huston insisted her husband, Dennis Huston, continue hand-writing letters. Typed notes seemed too impersonal, said Ms. Huston of Perrysburg.

Their letters began 40 years ago after she picked his photograph out of a high school yearbook her friend had brought to Finland from the United States, where she had been a foreign exchange student. Through seven years of letters, they gradually fell in love.

“You establish such an honesty,” she said. “You don't play the normal games when you're dating.”

Added Mr. Huston: “We began to know more about each other from those written words than we ever could have if we had actually been dating in the traditional manner.”

When they finally met in Finland for a whirlwind three weeks, they planned their lives together, including when they would marry and what they would name their children.

They still leave each other daily notes. “And I hide notes in his suitcase when he goes on trips,” said Ms. Huston.

“The `computer age' is wonderful,” said Mr. Huston. “However, some things just cannot be improved upon and letter writing is one of them.”

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Sixty years ago, Dorothy Smith was a college coed in Nashville when she lost her heart to a medical student.

“I was impressed by his writing. He just had a flair that other young men didn't have. Almost like Keats and Shelley,” said Mrs. Smith of West Toledo.

Jon Smith, son of an English teacher, wrote her poetry, including this:

“And so I place my lonely heart before you. To take it, guard it, keep it, I implore you. And in return for your sweet tender keep, I promise darling, - whether wake or sleep, To ever love, to worship and adore you.”

One day, after they married, she was angry at him. She climbed into the attic and found those letters. She cut out excerpts and pasted them on a big board which she presented to him. “All these nice flowery words. And he needed to follow though,” she said. “He had said things that weren't coming true.”

D.A. Oulton of Cheshire, England, lives for the letters he exchanges with his girlfriend. “I'm madly in love with her. I want to marry the girl,” said Mr. Oulton.

They've penned hundreds of tomes, up to 22 pages long, which can arrive in as little as four days, he said. E-mails are absolutely out of the question.

“A hand-written letter signifies effort, and romance has been put into it,” he said. “It's a personal thing.”

His light at the other end of the verbal tunnel, Beverly Ann Greunke, loves the beautiful cards and stationery he sends daily. “His hand holding that pen on that paper means the world to me,” said Ms. Greunke of Maumee. “The time it takes, his true writing.”

They met after Ms. Greunke saw an advertisement in the back of a woman's magazine advising women who were tired of being treated like rubbish by American men to write a British gentleman. She sent for the catalog, exchanged letters with five gents, and narrowed the bunch down to Mr. Oulton.

In May, they will meet for the fourth time, they said.

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Like all beauty, the charm of a communique is in the eye of the beholder.

“9:15 a.m. I am sorry I was nasty yesterday. I have gone to get the car serviced and a haircut. Coffee made at 6:30 a.m. Love Tommy.” It is wrinkled and worn, but Ruby McLaughlin carries that reminder of her late husband in her wallet. “It was just short and sweet. And that's the way he did things,” said Ms. McLaughlin of Oregon.

And as several readers told us, there's deep comfort in old love letters.

Elizabeth Rahmel, a widow, was feeling blue after a recent trip to Florida to renew a friendship with a high school classmate. Things hadn't gone well, and she cut the visit short.

When she returned to her Henry County home, she opened the big shoebox in which she keeps letters from her late husband, Paul Rahmel. He first wrote her in 1942, but she didn't respond until her aunt nudged her. Before long, she was getting daily letters and a dozen red roses every Wednesday.

She visited him in Charleston, S.C., and when she left, he handed her a letter which she read on the train.

“Dearest Betty, I'm still praying that this doesn't turn out to be a dream. ... To think that you would ever come to see me let alone agree to be my wife is beyond my wildest dreams. ... You have given me something to work for, to fight for. Before, money had no value. Now it is the key that will help us start a happy life together. ... I promise as long as I have the strength, I'll work to support and please you.”

“They were comforting,” said Mrs. Rahmel. “I thought how lucky I was to have such a wonderful husband. Somebody who loved me for who I was and not what he wanted to make me.”



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