Usually, I avoid the heat at this time of year, by staying indoors with piles of envelopes, pretty stamps and pots of tea, writing to friends across the globe. This year, I did things a bit differently. Spring seemed a far more sensible time for an annual letter than the hot swirl of shopping and shallow sociability that grips the end of the year, so I wrote and posted my letters in September. I share it here in case the postman didn’t get around to delivering yours.
Sure, I inherited the ‘Christmas Letter’ tradition from my mom, but it soon evolved (due to my complete disenchantment with the Christmas chaos) into an ‘end of the year affair’. Now, even the end of the year seems an artificial construct, passing by unnoticed by large chunks of the world’s inhabitants.
I far prefer to observe the natural rhythms of the Earth – things that have escaped human influence – the moon, the seasons. A year in the Earth’s life has just begun as the rains arrived – the ideal fresh start. Just perfect for a celebration of the last cycle, to reflect on the seasons past. Why didn’t I think of this before?
Curiously, in August I received some delighted messages from recipients of my last annual letter, seven months after they were posted in February 2015. One was from New Zealand (which is understandable as it is FAR away), the other from just along the dusty road I live on, within walking distance! Where on earth had that letter been all this time? It didn’t matter to either of these friends that the ‘news’ came so late. The ritual of sitting down with a tray of tea and the post was just as lovely, perhaps even more so at a time when there are fewer interesting envelopes in the post box. The beautiful stamps I ordered last year never arrived, but now I live in hope that they will someday.
I posted my 2015 letters in little blue envelopes, which had an old-fashioned feel. When I spotted the pack on the shelves of the stationery shop in Howick’s high street, it conjured up memories of letters the Zulu women, who worked for my family when I was a child, received. They were rare occurrences. Always blue. Neatly addressed in ball point. They were received with reverence, opened carefully and become faded and frayed on bedside shelves.
In my recollection, correspondence was often blue – air letters and aerograms and crisp blue pages, especially lightweight to save postage. Travelling in Europe – in the pre-email and What’s App era – letters were really important. Remember Poste Restante? My mother, a great letter writer, sent letters to me at Embassies and Post Offices in Europe’s capitals and I would seek them out for news from home. The SA Embassy offices in Trafalgar Square, London were elegant and dark, thickly carpeted with polished wood and brass. I don’t remember much besides the counter and the friendly Afrikaans men who rifled through the stack of envelopes searching for one that belonged to me. I remember too that we had to use a small side entrance as the main entrance was blocked by anti-apartheid demonstrators. They were surrounded by pigeons that were certainly descendants of the pigeons my mother had loved and fed during her lunch hours in London 30 years before.
I recall walking for miles and miles in Athens to find the Embassy. It was a long straight road, the light was bright, I wore a white dress. I remember wondering if I was on the right road and the feeling of uncertainly and insecurity well. There was no letter for me in that city. In Rome, I kept missing the letters at the Main Post Office – I think they only kept them for a certain time. I wonder if my mom wrote and posted letters to multiple cities in the hope that I would catch one somewhere?
When I did find one, they were a treat – pages and pages of crinkly paper with blue writing and tales of home. Or an Aerogramme that had to be opened in a certain way. I remember squeezing the last words onto that flap on the back, when I wrote them. Suddenly when I got to that part, I had heaps more to say!
In London, I stayed with my mother’s friend Peter, whom she had met while she lived there and kept in contact with ever since. Astonishing the connection created by long term letter writing – I was invited to stay immediately they heard of my intention to visit England. At his home, I could see the red post box through the upstairs window. Right on the pavement, plump and squat. It was easy for me to scribble a postcard before breakfast and pop it in the box. Trusting completely that it would arrive at Rendezvous, Pietermaritzburg, even when I failed to fill out the entire address.
My mom died when I was in Islington. When I got home, I wrote to everyone in her well-worn green address book to tell them the news. Then I sent them all a Christmas card later that year and soon was doing the annual letter thing. She had loved that tradition and it immediately became a habit of mine. Now there is just one person that appears in the old green address book, to whom I still write – everyone else has died. But, I have added so many new names! The list grows continually and I have little doubt that I will not abandon this ritual – even if I fiddle around with the time of the year and intention.
Oh dear, in all my rambling about letters, I forgot to include any actual news…. Perhaps I will have to do another annual letter after all – maybe in Autumn?
I certainly have enjoyed all the letters I have received in return to mine, and replied to every one. I loved the different memories my blue letter conjured up. One friend recalled her mom writing to her father during the Second World War (he was stationed in Italy) and to save paper replying on the back of the pages and between the lines. Another had very similar memories to mine, of European Embassies and poste restante and got out the bundle of the 50 year old letters she had written home and re-read them all!
I received handwritten letters from two cousins (I hardly have any relations, so this is exciting) that I hadn’t heard from in ages. One complained that her fingers had cramped after four pages of writing and was unsure I would be able to decipher her scrawl. The other found some old blue Basildon Featherweight that still had the original blotting paper in the pad and spoiled me using up the last few sheets. A friend in Dargle lamented the fact that one can no longer buy Basildon Bond writing paper with envelopes to match (blue for thank you notes and white for official letters), but accepted that it really is easier to correspond via SMS these days. Someone else reminded me of the letters we wrote weekly to ‘the boys on the border’ – a time when all South African young men had to do compulsory military service. A friend in Cape Town replied by Airletter, and she too, ran out of space at the end! I got lots of friendly, chatty emails too, which are very nice but don’t feel as special as an actual letter. A friend mentioned that when she bought her lovely old house in Howick, she had visions of sitting on the veranda for afternoon tea and opening her daily post. That doesn’t happen (unless you count email), but it did once last year! So, memories for so many all around and they all began with a little letter. I am not giving this tradition up, that’s for sure.