The lost art of the love letter
At 89, Vince Sirianni still lights up when he talks about his love, Mary.
Joy radiates from his smile as he reminisces. He confesses he knew she was The One immediately.
“When I saw her — you know how you dream when you're young and you visualize that beautiful face? I said, ‘Boy, that's the one I'd like to marry someday.' ”
Vince and Mary had just begun to get to know each other when World War II came knocking. Soon the Army drafted him, and his letters started.
Their correspondence enabled Mary to get to know Vince and gave him the chance to make clear his feelings.
“She fell in love with him because of those letters,” said their daughter, Rosemary Sirianni, 62, who lives one street away from her father's Mt. Washington home.
“I felt like I was reaching out with my hands … writing with my fingers,” Vince said. “But I felt I was sending out my love through these little letters. She's the one who kept me alive.”
Their letters, carefully preserved, survive as a valued part of the Heinz History Center's National Italian American Foundation/Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania Italian American World War II Veteran Oral History Project. Their daughter donated the collection in 2011.
Handwritten expressions of true romance are rare in today's world of Twitter pronouncements and Facebook status updates. People now tailor their written declarations of love, once considered paramount to any great love affair, to recipients' short attention spans.
Yet, some argue that the love letter, among all mailings, could manage to fend off extinction.
“Love letters are still being written and, in fact, are considered even more precious nowadays, as they are not as commonly written as before,” said Liz Williams, author of “Kind Regards: The Lost Art of Letter-Writing.”
“I have not come across one person who said they would not love to receive one. And who can blame them? Who wouldn't love a real letter, rather than a hurried email or text?” Williams said.
A good love letter can help a heart on the verge of romantic flatlining to flutter back to life, said Lauren Frances, a Los Angeles author and relationship coach who bills herself as “the discreet ‘go-to' love expert for Hollywood's A-list celebrities.”
“The experience of being profoundly loved melts any kind of cynicism,” Frances said. “When people get encouraged to be their best selves, and when you get seen as your best self, it's a miracle.”
Williams questions whether electronic exchanges count as the “real” thing when professing love.
“People still write very beautiful emails — although I am not quite so convinced about the efficacy of text or Twitter when it comes to affairs of the heart,” Williams said. “The problem with an email is that it's not tangible. You can't pick it up and feel the weight of the paper, or smell it, or trace the curve of the handwriting. You can tell so much about a person from their handwriting. An electronic font will never replicate that.”
Even contemporary men acknowledge that handwritten expressions pack a bigger punch than those transcribed through a keyboard.
“It just doesn't seem personal,” said John Kirkland, a California-based lawyer who compiled “Love Letters of Great Men” — heartfelt notes to lovers from notables such as Napoleon, George Washington, Ronald Reagan and Edgar Allen Poe.
“I think it's still appreciated, but if you take the time to find a pen and write it down, it's the effort,” Kirkland said. “It's a way for guys to prove that they mean it.”
Love notes don't have to drip sugary sweetness to get the point across.
“In a hurried, often thoughtless, world, a love letter shows that someone cares enough to carve out time, to sit, be present with his or her thoughts and emotions, and then to commit those feelings to paper,” Williams said.
The history center's collection of letters and photos includes interviews with Vince Sirianni that struck a chord with archivist Sierra Green: “He talks about his heart beating so quickly when he received her packages and how he went through each item kissing it because he knew she had once touched it.”
Letters in the museum's archives add context and texture to the history of the region, Green said.
“When we're looking at someone like Vince Sirianni's correspondence and the woman who would become his wife, it records so much more than their courtship — views of love at the time and how people grew in relationships with one another, and what they decided to share and what not to share,” Green said. “These letters are also a reflection of the psychological impact of the war and the importance of having ... the ability to share that with his love and his sweetheart.”
Rosemary Sirianni; her brother, Louis Sirianni, 66, of Boston; and their sister, Catherine (Sirianni) Rees, 55, of Alfred, N.Y., hope that people who read the letters will find much to hold dear. Their mother died in 2010.
“There was never any question in our mind, growing up, that my father absolutely adored my mother,” Rosemary Sirianni said.
And we have the letters to prove it.
Kate Benz is a staff writer for Tr ib Total Me dia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-8515.