Here’s the thing. Letter writing, in its more refined days of thinner paper, messy cursive, and licked stamps, was how people connected. When my grandfather immigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in the ’60s, he landed over 6,000 kilometres from home. The only way to hear from his family still in Europe was to write home. Every other Sunday he would write to his father and account the drastic changes, and wealth of opportunities that Canada gave him. On alternating Sundays, his father would do the same.
Even back then the postal system was a bit spotty, so often they would hear nothing from one another for prolonged periods. Postage travelled by ocean-going surface vessels. Imagine the physical journey all those letters endured. All the hands they passed between, before finally reaching loved ones. Still, they were important enough that 50 years later, after the invention of instant mail via the internet, his granddaughter could hold the proof in her hands.
My grandmother also wrote and received letters to and from Holland. However, the ones in her memory aren’t quite the same nature. They were white envelopes with black edging: death notices. They were designed to gently prepare the receiver for the news, to break the unexpected gradually. Though I would imagine that receiving such an envelope would be as gut-wrenching as an unexpected phone call.
Growing up with parents who were so ingrained in the postal system, so secured to the routine of mailing something, my mother became trained in the art. She spent days practising each letter before transferring it to onion paper (extremely thin, almost translucent paper used for airmail) and sending it to cousins across seas. Even as she grew up, the letters continued to come. On birthdays and other holidays, she and her siblings were showered with cards from uncles and aunts; first, second, and third cousins that they had never met.
None of the above three accounts were unique for the time. My step-mother and her sister exchanged letters overseas. And let’s not forget about pen-pals. There were ads in newspapers inviting strangers to write. Imagine. Putting your address out there for anyone to see. Only the truly ballsy would do that. And in middle school, didn’t we all have the sister-schools to write to? Little Becky F was my first pen pal.
There was no way to escape my letter-writing legacy. After the birth of my nephews and nieces, I was enthusiastic—so much so that, having no real memories of me, they referred to me as the “mail aunty.” When my little sister went away to college, I sent her colouring pages I had lovingly drawn in. I tried to keep my poor parents in the loop by mailing postcards and vignettes of what I had gotten up to since moving to the Island.
My first job was at a drugstore where I worked part-time in the post office. 10 years ago, letter writing had begun its decay, but that didn’t stop the odd letter from flying across the seas. Foreign languages scrawled into the centre, doodles filling up the sides. I liked to hold the decorative, the postcard, the homemade, the licked-shut envelopes in my hands and imagine how different they would be once they arrived. The sharp corners would be dulled, the postage stamp would have a processing centre’s stamp over top of it. I’d slide it into the filing system for it to begin its journey.
Perhaps that’s just the way it is in my family, but I prefer to think otherwise. Maybe it’s old-fashioned nostalgia or a craving for the tactile interaction with words on a page, words pressed inflexible so that the xo at the bottom presses through as a topographical marking of my love. Maybe it is the idea that I can write something today, and in a few days time in another province, or another country, someone rejoices, or laughs, or cries.
I recently was put in touch with a blog called LetterMo (February’s Letter Writing Month) that challenges you to write a letter every day of the month. A worthwhile procrastination method, I think. Especially if it’s teaching me the discipline of writing every day, as well as coming in the form of a fun challenge: use a typewriter, use a wax seal, send a homemade card, a recipe. (It should be noted that a few are somewhat unrealistic, such as attending a letter-writing event.)
Don’t worry, you probably couldn’t have foreseen that February was letter-writing month, so those few wasted days at the beginning won’t be held against you. I can think of a few occasions nearing the end of the month where a handwritten letter, stamp and all, might earn you some brownie points. Take the remainder of the month to just get used to the practice of writing again, get used to holding a pen, to finding joy in checking your mailbox for things other than bills.
The thing about progress is that technology is really handy in its immediacy. Entire conversations can be held within minutes. In contrast, a deeper consideration of time must accompany a letter sent by mail. In a week from now, when my father receives my letter, he’s not going to care about the lunch I’m looking forward to having with my friend tomorrow. It’s arriving from the past and any amount of things could have happened in that time.
Perhaps my favourite of the differences between letters and emails, besides immediacy, is location. Where the letter is written, and where its reply is being read. I’m sure to include a line saying: I’m writing to you from the university pub, or, this was written on a picnic table at my favourite beach in town. And the same meticulous thought is put into reading leaders. Carrying it around for hours until the sunlight streaming in through the café window inspires me to tear into it with my letter opener—more often a fork.
At the end of the day, the difference doesn’t amount to much, and I happily use both to hold a conversation. But I think that people do really like to have a little bit of you to hold onto.
You can reach me at: 900 5th street, bldg. 193, rm 217, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, V9R 5S5.