I’m sorry I’m so late with this letter. You’ll notice I’ve started with an apology – I think just about every letter ever written starts with saying sorry for taking so long to write it.
After every Christmas and every birthday when I was young I had to sit down and write my grandmother a thank-you letter. My mother provided me with writing paper that was translucent enough that I could slip a sheet of foolscap underneath and write neatly between the lines, to avoid the wily ruse when I was nine and wrote slantwise down the page, like a line of lemming-words leaping from a cliff, so that I had only enough space to write:
“Dear Granny, thank you for the socks and the handkerchiefs I received for Christmas. They will be very useful -”
without having to continue with what strictest honesty would have impelled me to say:
“- when I am a very old man in a rocking chair with nothing to do all day but blow my nose and make sure my feet are warm, but I have to say that right now they are signally disappointing and inappropriate gifts for a young man of good sinus health and robust circulatory system. Not to mention that I actually asked for a pellet gun.”
I hated writing those letters. What was I supposed to say? My mom said I should tell my grandmother some news about my life, but I was ten years old. Aside from a couple of alarming dreams, of which I wasn’t convinced she really needed to be informed, nothing new had recently happened, other than adding to my growing collection of unused socks and handkerchiefs.
I would put off writing it and put off writing it, and the longer I put it off, the more substantial it had to be in order to justify the delay, so the more daunting it became. If I’d just written it the day after Christmas I could probably have got away with five lines split over two paragraphs expressing my state of high haberdashery-driven excitement, but by the end of January, once I’d already returned to school, I’d be expected to include – what? Gossip about my classmates? A list of the causes of the Great Trek?Updates on the contents of Clint Lishman’s lunchbox? (He always had several triangles of Melrose cheese and one of those vacuum-packed compressed meat sticks, and chose one person a day – never me – and shared it with them.) For God’s sake, what did the woman want from me?
But I suppose you only learn to love something when you don’t have it any more. I spend most of my year now traveling around, seldom living more than a couple of months in any one place, and while I can call people or text or email them, I find myself longing for the intimacy, the solemn sacred connection of a letter.
A letter is something shared and serious. It takes effort, and that effort opens a door in the universe to a room in which only the writer and recipient can sit. I don’t know what is more comforting to a lonely person – to write a letter or to receive one. Receiving a letter is glorious of course, but writing it is an act of faith in the possibility of being, however briefly, however slightly, known.
I once had a girlfriend with an aunt who divorced her first husband forty years ago for reasons that remain mysterious. She remarried and was happy but then her second husband died and she never remarried. She is content now to live her life with her hobbies and her pets and occasional visits from her children, but it turns out that through all these years her first husband has been writing her letters. They come every month or so, long letters on onionskin airmail paper in an elongated spidery blue handwriting. They are chatty letters about his life and what he’s thinking and reflections about music and the news and what he has learnt. He doesn’t ask her to take him back. He doesn’t tell her he loves her, although I think that’s obvious enough. She reads all the letters very carefully and tenderly and keeps them in a small wooden table beside her bed. In forty years she has never written back.
I found these letters at a flea market, the Marche aux Puces de Vanves on the northern Peripherique of Paris. I suppose they come from the estates of people who have died without relatives, or at least without relatives who want to hold onto their old correspondence. They are letters from ordinary people, living ordinary lives that must have been very important to the ones doing the living. They’re all for sale, cheap. I want to know the story of each letter – who wrote it, to whom, how it was received. I want to know what hearts were broken or sustained, what was started or broken off, what bridges were built across the dark air of the world in the days when we had to make an effort to be connected.
On the island of Ikaria in the north Aegean there is a restaurant on the hill above the harbor called MaryMary. It’s owned by a chap called Nikos, who makes the best yiouvetsi in the world, other than his mom. In the months that I lived on Ikaria last year, I used MaryMary as my post office. Letters arrived on a regular basis and I replied to every one of them, but if there’s one thing that’s slower than the South African post office it’s the Greek island postal service, and the two of them together create a kind of perfect storm of slowness, like a barnacle and an oyster having a tug-of-war, so that letters mailed to me a year ago are still arriving at MaryMary, piling up on a shelf in the kitchen. Ikaria is very remote and I won’t make it back there this year, I don’t think. Maybe not next year either – like a drifting Odysseus, I have a lot of islands to visit before then. But I like the thought that one day when I do arrive and walk up the hill from the harbour Nikos will pour me a glass of wine from his barrel and hand me the letters and each of them will be like a visit from a long-lost friend that I never knew I had.
What I hope to do here, each month, maybe sometimes more frequently, is to write you a letter. I don’t know what it will say – give you some news, I guess, or share something I’ve been thinking. I’ll keep it short because I know you’re busy. It means a lot to me – more than I can say – that you want to hear from me, and that you’re someone I can write to. I hope you’ll write back sometimes, but if you’d rather not, that’s perfectly fine. I’m not my grandmother.