Words, Captured & Kept

Months ago my niece was here excitedly looking through some of my old totes filled with books, movies, souvenirs, photo albums, cards, letters and other mementos that I have never organised into a proper home.

We spent a whole afternoon reading letters to each other. Most of them were from my early years in Toronto right after high school, when I was in university. I frequently got letters then as long distance telephone calling was expensive and reserved for special rare occasions. I knew I had corresponded a lot with my mom and my best friend, who was also attending college in another city back home. But I had forgotten just how many letters I received from my grandmother, my aunt, various cousins, my sisters, my baby brother, ex-boyfriends, current boyfriends, friends … it’s an incredible amount of writing by some people who you would never think would ever write.

I mean thinking about the time investment and commitment involved in letter writing now, it just blows my mind that some of these letters exist at all. Finding a piece of paper, a pen or pencil, and an envelope in some households that I know were completely devoid of any reading or writing materials, not to mention buying a stamp and getting the envelope to the post office to be mailed away. The neatness of the handwriting, particularly by some of these men who wrote me, is impressive! Today, I could not produce anything anywhere near that neat because I am losing the skill of writing longhand, and I was never that neat to begin with.

My grandmother practised the art of handwriting and her letters are beautiful, so easily read and understood, in their tiny even cursive. She always had proper stationery, small rectangles of thick paper decorated with pretty flowers or trees.

My best friend’s letters might begin on bright coloured fun stationery paper and progress onto loose leaf and tiny scraps of wrapping paper or cardboard or whatever was at hand during the weeks as she wrote them. They are a treasure hunt of words and arrows and doodles … flip over, go to page 6, this is a loopy character … fun!

My mother’s letters nearly always end with the same sentiment: “Trust no one!” before saying, “here’s the kids!” And then the junior high school, elementary and kindergarten news of my sisters and brother … a dance with a special boy, a fight between sisters, an uneven scrawl of Miss You! I wish my mother had said, “Trust yourself,” which would have been so much more positive and empowering.

In my stash of letters there are also many that are from me addressed but never mailed to other people. The effort to get the envelope, the stamp and then into the mailbox, proved to be too much for me a lot of the time. My ramblings cover everything from the novelty of taking the subway downtown and eating in restaurants to the insanely wild parties happening every weekend at the house I lived in and the confusion of not knowing people’s motives or understanding their subtle nuances. I was flailing around in an unknown world, trusting no one as my mother had instructed, navigating the foreign city and university landscape completely on my own, having nobody to point me in the right direction or help me to stop doing things the hard way. Reading my letters, it’s hard to believe I am the same person now.

Now when we want to communicate everyone is just a few key strokes away. Unlimited calling anywhere in Canada for most of us but we prefer to type a few words with our thumbs and hit send. Can you even buy stationery sets anymore? The cost of mailing a letter has risen to … who would even know how much, now? And by the time a letter would arrive the news would be stale, with photos already viewed on Instagram and statuses revealed on Facebook.

It’s easier to communicate now, but I wonder sometimes if we are really communicating. Are the texts and messages that my mother sends to her grandchildren going to be just as meaningful to them in 30 years time as the handwritten letters from mine 30 years ago? Somehow, I doubt it.

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