Books

air mail, love stamps, and the delayed gratification of the postal service

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“Letter writing is such a heartless method of communicating. First, one has difficulty putting into words what he really feels—then he must worry for fear what is written is misunderstood—and that for a good long time, since he cannot erase once the post-box has banged shut, and then he must wait—and that is worst of all.” (Jim Elliot)

Waiting is the mortar that helps make up the foundation of many a relationship.

Time is the flame that refines many a love story.

Waiting seems the “worst of all” when you’re in the middle of it. I know.

But looking back, I can see how God used that time of waiting to draw my husband and I both closer to Himself, teaching us lessons we’d need for the years ahead. I think Jim and Betty would agree.

In Devotedly, Valerie Elliot Shepard tells her parents’ personal love story through their own journal entries and letters, mentioning the “unavoidable delayed gratification” which was part of correspondence during that era:

“Jim and Betty hearken back to an era when one wrote letters, stamped, and put them in the mailbox, aware they wouldn’t arrive at the other’s address for several days. Once the recipient read it (and reread it), he or she crafted a handwritten response. The next letter received might not provide answers to any questions that had been asked until a week later, maybe a month later, depending on how long it took for the person to sit down with his or her stationery…” (Valerie Elliot Shepard)

Devotedly by Valerie Elliot Shepard

Jim and Betty (better known as Jim and Elisabeth Elliot) began writing letters 52 years before my husband and I became pen pals. They paid 6 cents for Air Mail postage; we paid 37 cents for First Class stamps.

Once Jim observed Elisabeth’s choice of postage during a time of misunderstanding: “Your using regular mail rather than air mail has been so taken.” Elisabeth even made mention in her diary of sending those letters by regular ground service, while noting, “he writes airmail always.”

We didn’t have the option of air mail, but we could choose the design of our postage stamps, a luxury Jim and Elisabeth didn’t have. The first time Merritt used a love stamp to mail me a letter, he wrote a note on the envelope with an arrow pointing to the stamp, “Nice stamps! I didn’t buy them!”

“It is easy to misinterpret letters when one does not read them in the mental set that possessed the author when they were written.” (Jim)

Telephone calls were available to Jim and Elisabeth–but it took special arrangement (often by letter!) to coordinate a call since so few people had telephones in their homes. Elisabeth heard his voice most when she listened in via shortwave radio as he communicated with other mission stations. But their primary communication was via letter–whether carried by the U.S. Postal Service or local couriers in the jungles of Ecuador. (And Jim’s favorite was when she scented her letters with her perfume, “Tweed”!)

I had a cell phone and an email address, but my husband had neither when we were going together. Our phone conversations took place on his family’s land line, oftentimes with siblings all around listening in or outright stealing the phone. (And there was that one email I sent him at his winter job, an “I love you” disguised as a shipment tracking email, since I knew he was responsible for those.)

It was our mailboxes that we checked, without fail, for word from the other. (We had the timing of the postal service between our towns figured out exactly. Or so we thought, until the day I got a letter on a Tuesday!)

“Waiting word Thursday would surely bring something. No? Then Friday afternoon for certain. Well, Saturday cannot help bear fruit. (Monday is miles away . . .)” (Jim)

Our relationship was characterized by waiting: for letters, for phone calls…for God’s timing.

Perhaps that’s why Valerie Elliot Shepard’s new book Devotedly struck such a chord for me. I wasn’t just reading the love story of two Christian heroes; I was remembering my husband’s and my friendship and correspondence with every one of Jim and Elisabeth’s letters and journal entries.

Valorie pointed out that first letter where her father had signed, “Love, Jim” and it made me think of the unforgettable letter I’d received signed, “Love you, Merritt.”

I laughed at Jim’s apologies for “this wretched ball-point”, as he’d not remembered to fill his fountain pen upon leaving home. (I’m afraid our twenty-first writing instruments were not so refined!)

“Somehow I sense that your brevity has been far more loquacious than my ramblings.” (Jim)

And I sympathized with the length of time between letters and visits that made it a challenge to remember that there really was a person on the other side of those letters.

“Especially when it goes way beyond a month, as it so often does nowadays, it is hard to keep fresh the memory of the real person.” (Elisabeth)

Love's Longing

In Devotedly, Valerie expands upon the story that Elisabeth told in brief in Passion and Purity. It fills in the gaps from The Journals of Jim Elliot. Devotedly is not an exhaustive account of Jim and Elisabeth’s lives together (there are many more books to complete that picture!). In fact, there are aspects of their love story that even Valerie couldn’t track down; a missing period of her mother’s letters to her father left much to surmise about what he was replying to (oh I wonder what happened to them!).

“I trust your understanding of me—an understanding forged in the furnace of distance and long silences. The trial of separation has made us one in a way the pleasure of association could never have done.” (Jim)

Devotedly is a riveting account of two people passionately in love with each other and purely devoted to serving the Lord. Devotedly is also a beautiful tribute to courtship by letter in a previous generation.

While I found the Kindle version nicely formatted and easy to follow despite the back and forth, the hardback is one of the most lovely books I’ve ever seen.

Devotedly is a must on your bookshelf, whether you collect epistolary books, real-life love stories, or missionary biographies.

Read more in my review of Devotedly over at Kindred Grace.

“I trust your understanding of me—an understanding forged in the furnace of distance and long silences. The trial of separation has made us one in a way the pleasure of association could never have done.” (Jim Elliot) “I trust your understanding of me—an understanding forged in the furnace of distance and long silences. The trial of separation has made us one in a way the pleasure of association could never have done.” (Jim Elliot) “It is easy to misinterpret letters when one does not read them in the mental set that possessed the author when they were written.” (Jim Elliot) “Letter writing is such a heartless method of communicating. First, one has difficulty putting into words what he really feels—then he must worry for fear what is written is misunderstood—and that for a good long time, since he cannot erase once the post-box has banged shut, and then he must wait—and that is worst of all.” (Jim Elliot) “Somehow I sense that your brevity has been far more loquacious than my ramblings.” (Jim Elliot)


Disclosure: I am a B&H/LifeWay Blogger and received a review copy of Devotedly from their program. But I also bought a Kindle copy for myself and multiple copies as gifts!

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