A letter about letters


Dear friend

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.

Letters    Letters 2.jpg

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.

much love



24 thoughts on “A letter about letters”

  1. When you eventually get back to MaryMary (there’s a name that needs and explanation), you’ll probably find the postcard I sent you from Northern Ireland.

    1. He told me his mother’s name was Mary, and she died before she could ever eat at his restaurant. He has her photograph behind the cash register. I asked him why there were two Marys though, and he shrugged and said Greeks like a longer name.

  2. Made my day, this news, in this letter. I have a box of letters from my youth that I go through every now and again, losing myself in the mists of nostalgia: first (second, third, etc.) love, granny love, Valentine’s cards from my Dad, sent to my awkward 13-year old self at boarding school … too lovely x

    1. I have a file of faxes that I exchanged with a long distance girlfriend in the mid-90s, but they are all on that shiny acid fax paper, so the writing has faded away almost to nothing. I have to hold them up to the light and angle them around to try make them out, and when I do make them out, i am reminded that in the mid-90s I was something of a prat.

      1. Ah, faxes. The black sheep of letters, when it comes to record keeping. I, too, have some from a boyfriend of that decade (how exciting it was to receive a letter, instantly!). And as for being a prat in the 90s … weren’t we all? It was fashionable then, I like to think x

  3. Darrel Bristow Bovey
    c/o Nikos
    Best Yiouvetsi in the World Restaurant
    On the Hill above the MaryMary Harbor
    North Aegean

    Dear Darrel

    I’m sorry I’m so late with this letter but I seem to have been caught up engaging the immediacy of electronic correspondence and have also recently not been able to source the translucent airmail paper one used to write letters on.

    Be that as it may and following your recent request, I am now resolved to send you a letter immediately. You don’t mind hearing about the ordinary stuff so here goes. Please be prepared it really is very ordinary. (I wish it were still the old days when I worked as a cabin attendant for SAA. I always had interesting stories to tell then. Actually they weren’t really that interesting but people expected them to be so they thought they were.)
    I now work as a receptionist for a specialist gynaecologist and obstetrician – you know, the guy who delivers babies. I book his appointments. Actually, perhaps my days are not as ordinary as all that. Some can be quite interesting. The other day a lady came in with…..

    Oops, I just realised I’m not writing you an actual letter. How remiss of me. However, I intend to rectify my mistake. I’m off to the shops now. I’m going to make a point of finding that paper and a good old-fashioned ballpoint pen and when you next get to Ikaria, I promise a letter will be waiting for you.

    Much love

    PS I see you spelled ‘harbour’ the way the Americans do. Do the Greeks spell it that way too?

    1. I like that thought, that the stories weren’t interesting but people expected them to be, so they received them as though they were. I guess an interesting story is like a headache – there’s no objective measure of it. If you think it’s interesting, it is. If you think you have a headache, you do.Truthfully, I think there are very few objectively interesting stories, and when you do stumble upon one, it’s a matter of luck. I think some of the best stories I’ve had, I’ve messed up when I’ve come to tell them. What matters in a story is how it’s told (and sometimes, more prosaically, who’s telling it.)

      (I don’t think I spelt harbour as harbor, did I? That feels like an error someone else has introduced, not me.)

  4. Your tale of writing thank you letters struck a chord. I too was subjected to this form of literary torture with the constant reminder of the obligation to thank the distant relative who had taken the trouble to send a gift. It further reminded me of an incident from long ago when a little girl in the family was given a gift(I can’t for the life of me remember what it was) and was coaxed in to facing the rather intimidating benefactor with the instruction to say how much she liked the gift. Her short, and to the point, speech went as follows:”Thank you very much for the gift. I’ve always wanted one, but not very much!” I’m not sure what the response was or whether she ever received and further gifts! Regards Robin Ellis.

  5. I think in any relationship that endures, and any communication that continues, both parties are receiving something from it, and what they’re receiving is not always evident to other people. I think to think one’s way into the emotional lives of others who aren’t you, and who aren’t like you, is very difficult and very rare, and I think that sometimes accepting that you don’t understand it but are prepared to conceive it is the rarest and most difficult but also the most precious of experiences. I think there is an irreducible mystery in people’s hearts that makes us larger for accepting it.

  6. I do love to receive letters. I am part of a group of 10 ladies scattered around the globe who exchange what we fondly call Mailbox Magic. Old school birthday and Christmas cards, postcards when we travel, trinkets and a journal which has now on its 4th trip around the globe. There is something magical about receiving in the post something which has been lovingly chosen or made just for yiu and finished off with a handwritten note.
    Happy travels. Look forward to reading more.

    1. Hi Yvonne – the journal traveling around the globe sounds fascinating. How does that work? You keep it, write in it for a while, and then send it to the next person in the circle? How long has this journal been in existence? Does each person get the journal? How long do you keep it? I love this.

  7. Awesome. Reminds me of the letters my mother made me write to relatives..
    which helped me forge friendships when girls left school and I was the only one who wrote long descriptive letters back…

    1. The feeling of being constantly late with writing thank-you letters served me very well in my career, which is essentially the same thing, but without having received a gift.

  8. Dear Darrel

    I hope this letter finds you well (insert image of letter frantically searching for Darrel). My superego, which appears to be very similar to your mother, insists that I thank you for this gift.

    Thank you.

  9. What a good idea this is Darrel.

    I recently came upon a trove of letters written by me to my parents long ago when the world was slower. I was a lonely grad student in LA, 1970s. Knew no one. I wrote 6 – 8 page letters once a month on yellow writing paper and sent them to my pining parents in JHB. Phone calls were too expensive.

    I find out now, on rereading them, that I was more interesting than I am now, a better correspondent (I would describe my lunch choices at the UCLA canteen, the architecture of grand buildings on campus, the fashion predilections of the locals), and a probably a better son than I thought I was at the time.

    1. I quite enthusiastically and obsessively read collections of letters and correspondences from the days when people corresponded, and I am always enviously struck by the how people used to perform those simple acts of describing buildings and lunch choices and fashion predilections – all things that I never think of noticing now, and am much the poorer for it. But good god, SB -to discover that you were probably a better son that you thought? What a gift! What a blessing! What a benefaction!

  10. Oh gosh – you may have already received a screed from me. My apologies if you have, I haven’t a clue with this machine! I so enjoyed your letter about letters which I stumbled on doing the dreaded Googling. It made me both laugh and cry but I related to it so much. I love good old letter writing – emotions flow more smoothly and sincerely. The fact that no one can read them is another story! Receiving a letter by mail is my ultimate joy.

    Recently discovered boxes of letters, from my Dad to my Mother when he was a P O W in the second world war – bitter sweet emotive reading. There were also my letters written from boarding school and overseas travel, plus letters I wrote to my mother-in-law….heavens, but such fun reading them all. My favourite was one I wrote to one of my grandmothers saying “Thank you for the tickey you gave me for Christmas, Ann (my younger sister) says thank you for the sixpence.”

    You have opened yourself up for punishment , I’m afraid…..that currency, if you remember it was from a very long time ago! You’re dealing with a geriatric with verbal diarrhoea!

    Many thanks and regards


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