Books Magazine

Letters - They Can Be a Lifesaver

By Ashleylister @ashleylister
Much as I love technology, and spend a big chunk of every day with eyes on a screen, fingers flying across a keyboard, sending the next text, email, tweet or WhatsApp message, I'm still sad at the demise of the personal letter.  There's nothing to beat the sound of a big, fat envelope landing on the doormat, the first sight of the handwritten address and the excitement of freeing the folded paper inside.
When I was about eleven or twelve, we were all asked, during a particularly boring French lesson, whether we would like a penfriend.  Most of the boys declined, grinning and shaking their heads, but several girls, including me, accepted the offer.  And so for the next few months Sabine and I corresponded sporadically, telling each other in broken French and pigeon English about our families and our hobbies.  As far as I remember it never got any more interesting than that.  Little did I think that one of Sabine’s letters would end up contributing to my sex education.
It happened like this (and I still cringe, fifty years later, when I recall the incident):  It was another boring French lesson.  We were learning about past participles, and as the teacher turned to write on the blackboard I quietly reached into my bag and drew out the letter from Sabine that had arrived that morning.  Holding it beneath the desk, I began to read it when Miss Hyde’s voice rang out from the front of the class, “Jill Carrington, what have you got there?  This is a French lessson!” she bellowed.  There might even have been a piece of flying chalk aimed at my head, which was an accepted short, sharp shock in those days.  “It’s a letter,” I stammered.  Miss Hyde shook her head in despair.  “That’s nothing to do with this lesson,” she said, holding out a hand for the offending article.  Indignantly and with some bravado, I said loudly, “It’s a FRENCH letter.” 
I wasn’t prepared for the roar of laughter from a group of boys on the cusp of puberty, looking for sexual connotation in any comment.  I was confused.  I didn’t understand why it was so funny.  Miss Hyde glared at the boys, snatched the letter and moved on swiftly.  It was only at playtime when my best friend explained to me the meaning of ‘French letter’ that the full humiliation hit me.  I don’t remember if I replied to Sabine but I do know that particular pen friendship didn’t last long after that.

Letters - They Can Be a Lifesaver

Just a few of the letters I've kept over the years

Every parent has probably got a box or a drawer crammed with sweet notes from their children.I’m no exception.The wonky writing, the misspellings, the innocent sentiments, ‘I love you mumy I am sory I didunt meen to eat that biskit….’Those days are now so distant, we will never get them back, but it’s a touching reminder that our children really were once cute. The missives from the children and grandchildren are probably the only love letters I've ever received.When the future husband and I were separated for a summer at the beginning of our relationship we did keep up a fairly frequent correspondence, although his letters were filled mainly with rundowns of the latest football match, and the most romantic phrase after his signature was always a jaunty 'Up the Rovers.'I would have been flattered, thinking it was some sort of secret message just for me, but I’ve seen it on all letters and emails since, including those to every North West NASUWT member when the husband was local secretary.I’m not sure how many Burnley supporters subsequently defected to the NUT. Letters have always held a special place in my heart.My mom and dad are of a generation that thought nothing of penning several letters a week.Between ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels I went to work in France for a few months.This was the first time I’d been away from home for longer than a week and I was terribly homesick.My days revolved around the postman’s regular visits – and those thin blue airmail envelopes with my mum’s inimitable handwriting on the front.In the privacy of my room I would read, through hot, fat tears, the descriptions of the mundane family life I was missing so much.‘I took John to the barber’s, he cut it a bit short…… Dad and I went into Palmers Green, had a coffee and a Danish pastry in the Baker’s Oven…….Grandma and granddad called round and we walked over to Broomfield Park….we sat by the bandstand and had an ice cream…..’For a few moments I was back with my family, amidst the arguments and laughter and the everyday.I still have a wooden box in the attic containing a neat pile of thin blue envelopes with my mum’s handwriting on the front.  They sit alongside my eldest son's 'blueys from when he was posted to Afghanistan with the RAF.  I didn't care what they said, I just cared that he was still alive to send them.
My dad’s letters have always had a more philosophical slant.No descriptions of haircuts or visits to the park, these are letters full of advice, sympathy, condolences, usually after an upsetting split with a boyfriend, problems with bringing up three young children (‘they’ll grow up..’) and once, notably, when I was going through a particularly distressing depression and could see no light at the end of the tunnel ('..hang on in there, it WILL get better.' It did).That letter, written from the heart by a fellow sufferer, is in a drawer next to my bed, crumpled, creased and smudged with tears.It’s almost too painful to read now that I've come out the other side. My grandma and granddad were married for nearly fifty years.  They obviously loved each other to have stayed together so long, but I never saw any obvious signs of affection.  My granddad was the stereotypical henpecked husband, with grandma nagging him most of the time.  So it was a surprise when the house was cleared after their deaths and a large pile of love letters was found, mainly scribbled on the backs of old envelopes or beneath shopping lists.  The notes, mainly from granddad to grandma, and only occasionally reciprocated, were touching in their simplicity.  Fifty years of reassuring grandma that despite her damaged childhood and its repercussions for the rest of her life, she really was lovable and loved. I'm hoping that when our house is eventually cleared after the husband and I have passed away the children will find our letters and shed a tear at that romantic phrase at the end of each letter, 'Love Dave, Up the Rovers.' 
A short haiku this week, which I hope conveys the feeling of receiving a personal letter.
The Letter by Jill Reidy
The thud on the mat Eyes note script, envelope rips  Anticipation
Thanks for reading        Jill
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