What did they do in the Old Days?

Minx wonders what people did before the Web came along, before communication was so gratuitously instant.

They wrote letters.  Which they sealed in envelopes, onto which they stuck a stamp and then they popped them in a post box. Why they. This was meus – until only a handful of years ago. Until the WorldWideWeb rendered envelopes and postage stamps and fat pads of Basildon Bond almost redundant.

I began writing letters when I was six: letters home were an obligatory part of our boarding school week.

Dear Mummy and Daddy, How are you? I am fine. I like school. Love from me x

The I Like School was essential if your letter was to pass muster with the class room censor.

I didn’t know how much my letters home were appreciated until I became a mother (with children at boarding school) myself.  As a child I had anticipated the arrival of letters in the school dining room (at lunchtime) with palpable excitement: the entire school was hushed as the member of staff on duty read out names from the bundle of post in her hands. Great kudos was attached to those who received letters regularly. I was amongst the lucky ones: my mum was dogged in her religious dispatch of twice weekly letters.

I always imagined I could smell her skin (Elizabeth Arden) on the pages that slipped from the envelope, and as I read, I could see her sitting at her desk to write, I could hear the sounds of homelife on the farm a hundred miles away. Letters from Mum tipped the taste of her chocolate cake into my boiled cabbage world at school. They transcended me – briefly – back home.

And until my own children began to write to me, in deliciously childish scrawl, illustrating the parts of the page they hadn’t managed to fill with text with pictures from their own boarding school world, I imagined my letters to Mum and Dad were reassuringly regular reminders that I was still in the land of the living for I told them so little. I was wrong; my children told me little more but I could scent their very essence on lined paper grubby with eraser marks. I kept every one, in a box file marked “Letters from the Children”.  We take them out sometimes and laugh at the funny things they said, their extraordinary phonetic spelling, their drawings.

I have four letters that rank amongst my most precious possessions: from my father, I really could smell his hand on the page: tobacco. He wrote the last only days before he was killed in a road accident. For years afterwards I wished I could erase the words that dictated his imminent weekend plans – perhaps if he’d never written them, he’d still be here I used to think.

As teenagers my girlfriends and I – absent from each other during the long summer holidays – wrote lengthy epistles describing the precise words a crush had uttered, they made for delciously long gossipy reads that one could return to again and again. I had a friend who never failed to seal an envelope without enclosing some small treasure: a photo, a pressed flower, a pinch of colourful paperclips. Their uselessness didn’t matter, what mattered was that you’d received more than a letter, you’d received something that bordered on a parcel.

I have arm-twisted my kids into letter writing: thankyou letters to assorted grannies and great aunts who have yet to debut the WorldWideWeb (if, indeed, they ever do). It means the children understand communication can be afforded through pen and paper and not just digits upon a keyboard. Hat has yet to appreciate a postcard needs an address; you can understand her reasoning: why won’t a letter in the mail get to Granny Hirst if simply addressed ”to granny hirst” when an email to my mum gets there with just her name@.

Would I part with my internet connectivity in lieu of letters to a remote PO Box number in an Outpost a million miles from anywhere. Would I ditch the techno talk for the romantcism of letters in the mail?

No. No I wouldn’t. I loved letters – writing them, receiving them. I still love them, though they present infrequently in my life now. But I love the ”being in touch” more than the “getting in touch”. I’m glad I knew about letters, I shall be eternally grateful that I was part of a generation that understood the pleasure of letters. But I’m even more grateful I can tag onto the Internet generation. It might mean I never receive a letter in the post from my babies again, but I’ll settle for that if I can be assured of regular one liners:

hi mum, how r u? cd u please send gran’s email address again? lol x

I’ve still got a box file of letters written by them long ago, we can always review them and giggle at the things they said, their drunk-spider scrawl, I can reminisce and they can laugh at how we did things in The Old Days.


6 Responses to “What did they do in the Old Days?”

  1. Summer Says:

    I haven’t commented before but I’ve been reading your blog for the past month or so. It is a bit of living vicariously I suppose as I’m a stay at home Mama to one little girl and live smack dab in the middle of busy city life. I love reading your perspectives and enjoy your style. This post in particular struck a chord. Thanks for sharing and I wish your family all the best and you all the sanity you need to run that household!

  2. Roberta Says:

    I still have all of the letters my boys have written me. Treasured keep sakes.

  3. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Summer – I’m flattered you’ve been reading; thank you. Really – my household in the end not so different from yours, or any mum’s anywhere: I still gotta feed them, keep ’em clean and try and remember to put clean undies on (myself) every day. Geography is a tiny part of motherhood. And living in a big city would be exciting for us; it’s all relative. Thanks so much for good wishes, hugely appreciated just now.

  4. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Roberta; I hope you always enjoy them. My darling mum-in-law, who died two years ago, kept all those my Husband had written to her. They have given all of us much to laugh about over the years, wish I’d had the chance to thank her for her fore-sightedness, hope she knows how much we enjoy them.

  5. lara Says:

    Hello again and thanks so much for your help on the Australian bird. I am still researching, but narrowing the scope to Australia helps. Please thank your daughter. Also I empathize with you about mail. I am not in the outback or outpost at all, but still the letters don’t pour in the way I’d like. I live for letters! I’m raising my 2 year old daughter to do the same. She practices her ‘letters’ (scribbles) and we send them off to her friends, Sunday school teacher, cousins, etc. What a joy for her to receive mail back. A side note: For a couple months we had owls perching in the oak trees in our yard shopping for little birds who come to our bird feeders. Imagine the additions to our feather collection! Every once in awhile we tuck one in a letter. I feel the same way, it’s much more fun to get a little something with a letter, and we get such good responses. Keep up the good work on your blog. Hang in there! As you said, raising children is the same everywhere. Laundry, meals, bedtime prayers. Keep those precious moments! 🙂

  6. Iota Says:

    I so agree. I love email, but I love letters, and I am, as you, glad to be of the generation who didn’t have the choice, once upon a time.

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