Real Conversation between an unnamed friend and myself:
Her: What did you do today?
Me: I worked on a letter to my sister.
Her, in a confused tone : Can’t you all just email?
Me: Uh, no. That’s not the same.
Doh! Of course we could email, but that is irrelevant here. My sister and I write letters to one another. That is what we do. In intimate communication the object is not always the shortest line between two points. The process of choosing and forming strings of words into thoughts and then putting those on paper is an intellectual as well as a tactile pleasure. In today’s world, receiving a hand written letter is as rare as seeing a horse and carriage driving down one’s street. We like to do our part to keep this all but forgotten art alive.
For my sister and me, if I may be so bold, one function of our letter writing practice is to try to recreate being together. Our physical time together is a sort of stream of consciousness. We may be in her kitchen washing dishes, and one of us will say, ” And about that food coop,” and the other will know what she means though we haven’t actually spoken about the coop since yesterday. Later, we can be in the same room reading, and one of us will look up and say,”Huh. Listen to this. These people went to tea and ate beans on toast!” The other will nod, and return to her own reading without missing a beat.
I know you’re marveling at our heady, rich, vibrant repartee. Well, words can’t convey everything. Suffice it to say that when we are together we are attuned, all of a piece. And when I receive a letter from my sister it too is all of a piece. It is a running narrative of however many days it may take her to write the letter. We intersperse our daily routines with reviews of what we are reading, what our families are doing and with our interior lives.
For several years we wrote our letters as though we were living in the times of whatever literary characters we were exploring. This could mean we would start a letter with:
Dearest Genevra ( We used names more appropriate to the fiction we were reading)
I take pen in hand, fervently begging your forgiveness for the fearful delay in responding to your last missive. I daresay I fairly tremble to recount, though upon my honor I must, as required by my obligations as a God fearing woman, the travails we have endured here at Pilgrimage House, brought upon us by who knows what inhuman scourge. Even now as I write my dear Genevra, grey winds cause the fallen leaves to dance in what appears to be an evil announcement that here, within these walls, lies the plague known as streptococcus.
Or, if reading Barbara Pym, one of our favorites:
I hope this finds you in good health. Today was a day like most others. I lit the gas ring this morning to brew some tea before leaving for the office. As I nibbled on my burnt toast, I noticed, too late, that I had a ladder in my stockings. Lacking bus fare I walked all the blocks to work, but as I had my umbrella scarcely got too wet. One of my office mates, Hiram, was under the weather and blew his nose all morning into a large white handkerchief. I believe his mother launders them for him. At the lunch hour I stopped at a nearby cafeteria for a bowl of tomato soup before dropping a few letters in the post. After work I dropped in St Augustus of the Fields for evensong; there were only five of us present including the vicar.
And so on. When events render us unable to be quite so playful, we just launch into the fascinating stuff of our lives. For my part, I just get out paper and begin to write whatever is in my mind. Sometimes I add a little illustration, maybe a stick figure of myself getting myself into some sort of jam such as dumping a plate of food on a stranger at a restaurant.Once I begin to write I go on and on until I have said everything I know: where I’ve been, what I’ve cooked, what I’ve read, where I’m going. And she’s going to love every single word!
Neither of us uses fancy stationery. I prefer a legal pad because my writing is large. Ellen uses paper recycled from her husband’s job at a hospital so the backs of her pages are often printed with diagrams of a human body. But we work around that. Since we write letters we don’t talk much on the phone; we can’t give away what we may have already written. If I see something she posts on facebook, that’s fine, but it doesn’t count because it was not personally directed to me.
We wait weeks for our letters, sometimes patiently, some times not. We usually let one another know that “the eagle has flown” so we know to be on the lookout for a thick, fat letter. Oh, and the sublime pleasure of opening that envelope, of running my hands over the pages of her distinctive
scrawl handwriting I would know anywhere! Usually her letters are written in several colors of ink, according to what she had handy to use while waiting for her daughter at volleyball practice, or before her graduate class met. We number our pages, which are never fewer than twenty.
At the end I feel I have made the rounds of her life with her, which I suppose is the next best thing to being there. For a day or two after I receive her letter I ruminate over whatever subjects she has broached, so that I can respond to them thoughtfully. Then the next chance I get I find a legal pad or notebook paper and begin writing back; I know she’ll be expecting my reply. I guess I had best get started right now; it’s my turn!