When getting mail meant walking to the box on the edge of the road, not clicking on my computer's server icon, receiving a letter was one of the highlights of my day.

As a child, I eagerly waited for a response to the letters I wrote to my cousin Michelle in Montana. We wrote back and forth weekly and the letters kept us connected, so when we saw each other on her family's annual vacation to North Dakota, it was as if no time had passed.

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In my teenage years, besides getting letters from Michelle, I received them from my brother Rich who backpacked across the United States and Mexico for six months when he graduated from high school and in Europe for six months after graduation from UND. Each letter chronicled the past week's adventure of places he stayed and people he met, a kind of diary of his travels. I keep all of those letters, even more precious to me since his death, in a box with my other treasured possessions.

In another special box are the love letters my grandfather James Bailey wrote to my grandmother Mary Ellen before they were married. Through the letters written in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I learned about my grandfather's travels from North Dakota to Alberta where he worked in the winter and some of the challenges my grandmother faced teaching in rural schools. Although both grandparents died before I was born, because of the letters I feel a bond with them.

Despite my fondness for letters, I have mostly relied on email and text messaging since they became the popular way to communicate. There is no denying the convenience and quickness of electronic communications. I'd even started to question whether there's really even a need for "snail mail" because most of what I get is junk mail, anyway.

Red letter days

Then Thomas enlisted in the Marines and I rediscovered the need for getting mail the old-fashioned way. He gave us his iPhone before he boarded the plane for the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot Nov. 5, and the only way we've been able to communicate with him since is through letters. For the past two months our family has written, usually daily, letters to him. Thomas has written several in return, telling us about his challenges and successes in Basic Training.

During the past nine weeks, the mailbox at the edge of the road has newfound importance. Each day, I eagerly walk to the box and check to see if there's a letter from Thomas inside. When there is, I practically run back to the house and announce to my family "We got a letter!" and our family gathers round the kitchen table while Ellen reads it aloud.

After she finishes, I read the letter over, savoring every word. Then the letter goes in the china cabinet where it and the others we've received from Thomas are re-read when I'm missing him. Eventually, I will put the letters in a special box of their own where they'll become part of my collection of cherished possessions and that of generations to come.