The beautiful art of letter-writing

When was the last time you wrote a letter? No, I don't mean by email or even using a word package. A handwritten letter? No, I can't remember, either.

When was the last time you wrote a letter?

No, I don’t mean by email or even using a word package. A handwritten letter?

No, I can’t remember, either.

Some have even referred to it as a lost art http:/

I love to receive handwritten letters. A close friend of mine used to send me them, out-of-the-blue, with no real milestone in mind. In fact she was rather a fan of sending postcards, too. I am never quite sure I reciprocated, but I cherished everything she sent me. Be she close or far, she seemed to take real pleasure in the art of letter-writing. I far preferred to receive a letter or a postcard than a text message. And she seemed to revel in sending them, so everybody was winning.

Convenience vs depth?

I am the first admit I love the ease and convenience – the lack of accountability, dare I say – of sending messages via Whatsapp. There you go: here is my message, seems to be the sentiment. It is very transactional. It’s a way to get things done.

But is it a way to actually express real depth or emotion? Is any form of instant communication inherently anything other than a utilitarian means of making the greatest number of us ‘happy’? And what are the drawbacks?

I recently had a WhatsApp meltdown with a dear and old friend – we were both having bad days. And agreed as much when we took a step back, to realise we were starting to communicate in a very odd way, not at all rooted in how we actually relate to one another.

Grandma’s love of letter-writing

I am unlikely to take up letter-writing any time soon. However, I loved the typewritten (and occasionally handwritten) letters I was recently gifted, which were written by my paternal grandmother a half-century ago.

I didn’t even know they existed, this set of rubies and gems (Grandma’s maiden name was Crystol). They span the near 30-year period from May 1958 to 1984, when she – Shirley – wrote to her former sister-in-law, Cissie. Cissie and her three children had all emigrated to Toronto by June 1958. My Grandma was divorced to Cissie’s brother – my paternal Grandfather – that same year.

The letters are never anything but uncompromising; detailing what I have only ever come to understand about my Grandma, and crucially, my paternal grandfather, Arthur – who died before I was born – through hints, hushed voices and hearsay. Are these letters my property to own? Possibly not. But a relative was keen I should have the letters. She certainly doesn’t feel they are her’s to keep.

Grandma with a new book
My cousin has written a book featuring my grandmother’s aunt.

There are some sections anyone who doesn’t know my Grandma would possibly imagine – as her Grandson – I would rather she had edited out. Not at all. By her own admission, she can only ever unfailingly be herself, as uncomfortable as that was, not just for other people, but for her as well. In an age where trivialities and superficialities obscure what anyone of us truly want, need, think, or mean, it was wholly refreshing (and riveting) to read. I just wish she had been kinder to herself and less nervous about life.

She wishes, in an alternative life, she could have been an “independent sort”, not at all bothered about the need for “man worry”. I love her descriptions of the late 1950s and the great discovery of “labour-saving devices”, and central heating, set by a thermostat.

I have only really ever known her as irrepressible, idiosyncratic and somehow amazingly intuitive, but these letters shine a new light on her intelligence, which I have long overlooked. There are some sections which genuinely provide new meaning – why she was so outspoken, sometimes the very opposite of a diplomat!

She was what she was. She is what she is (while we still have her). And her letters are – lovingly – just what I wanted to read at this time.

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