The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Vintage Letters

One of the most vivid memories I have of my grandmothers home was her “card drawer”. In her hallway she had a beautiful set of white draws with elaborate scrolling detail in gold and dainty little gold handles. Inside held hundreds of cards. Cards for every  conceivable occasion.  I especially loved this drawer as my Gran was known for sending raunchy cards and all manner of dirty jokes were in that drawer (which may explain why years later searching through the drawers for something else I found copies of 1960’s “Ribald” magazines! Oh the horror of knowing your gran has porn). On my 10th birthday I got my first “naughty” birthday card and felt like the most grown up person ever. Now before we go down that road….no it is not advisable to give 10 year old children cards with dirty jokes in them, but trust me when I say it was tame compared to the stuff I overheard on a regular basis in that house. Everyone looked forward to getting a card for her and her friends proudly displayed them in their homes. Whenever she spotted a newsagents or card store she would stop to have a look and pick up some new ones for the drawer. Along with her trusty diary she never forgot a birthday or anniversary. I on the other hand have purchased and addressed at least 100 Christmas cards in the past before promptly forgetting they existed until February.

Last year I resolved to try to be better with my correspondence  I started out slowly – with thank you notes. They are surprisingly easy to write and seem so very appreciated. To make things easy on myself when I buy a new pack of cards I also buy a pack of stamps – that way I can always send them out as soon as I think of it (though I also have fished out more than a few forgotten and smooshed ones from the bottom of my handbag over the year). Mostly it was easy, and most of the time people got pretty thank you notes and emailed me straight away to say they hadn’t received “proper” mail in so long. It felt good.

Then a friend of mine lost her mother. I honestly had no idea what to do. I hadn’t even heard it from her directly. I wanted to send her flowers (but not in the budget), I wanted to call her (but didn’t know if she would be up to that)…I wanted to make it better. I couldn’t of course. So I sat down to write a condolence letter.  After staring at the blank page for awhile I opened up my copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette (18th Edition) and took this advice…

“Because condolence notes and letters are too personal to follow a set form, one simple rule should guide you: Say what you truly feel. A single sincere line expressing the genuine feeling you had for the deceased is all you need to write.”

In my case I had never met her mother, my friend moved here from New York. But I did know how she felt about her mother. I sent the letter and after everything had settled down I heard from her thanking me. For her she appreciated not only me thinking of her, but sending her something that required nothing of her. So many emails were filled with questions she felt she owed an answer to. But a note that was just for her, during this horrible time, that was just me thinking of her – meant so much.

Not long after that I received the shock of my life when I opened my email and discovered my Nana had emailed me. I had always said to my nan “if only you had email – we could keep in touch more” as I am a huge Internet addict. It was a one off from my aunts email (so far) but it was just such a huge thing. I felt so honoured. She had done something way out of her comfort zone just to talk to me.

Around the same a  lovely friend gifted me with this beautiful letter writing set that she had found while op shopping and I just knew I was going to write everyone beautiful letters, in beautiful handwriting. Filled with meaningful prose (I do tend have a tendency to get carried away). Instead it ended up in the drawer and I forgot about it.

Writing Set

Then last week I found the set while tidying up and I decided if my Nana could email me, I could find the time to sit down and write her a handwritten letter. So I did. I told her about the twins shaving their heads, about worrying about the hectic schedule we have this year with the girls sports, about seeing a new doctor and lots of things I had probably already mentioned on the phone. Then I wrote what I had wanted to say to her for years, the stuff that just doesn’t come out on the phone or when I fly home for a visit. I told her how much I admired her, how I always wanted to be as kind, forgiving and generous as she was. How she has been my hero for as long as I can remember. How unlike everyone else, I actually care what she thinks of me. I wrote it all in my terrible shaky handwriting (I have hand tremors ..and my hands shake even more when I am emotional), sealed it up and wrote the only other address I know off by heart and put it in the mail.

On Tuesday I fly into Sydney for a quick family visit. I can’t wait to see her (and the rest of my family and friends…but mainly her). I can’t wait to hear how busy she has been, if she really sold her tennis racket to help my grandfather do a motorcyle tour (I have seen it in several articles about my grandfather now), I can’t wait to see her laugh and smile, I can’t wait to hear what else she has been reading (she recently recommended “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and prior to that she suggested “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote), I can’t wait to hear (and hopefully see) her long time boyfriend and how she blushes and laughs and chastises me for calling him that. I can’t wait to hear her say that she was just as surprised to get a letter from me as I was to get an email from her. I just can’t wait to see her.

Now lovely ladies (and gents of course), a challenge for you all. Put pen to paper and send a letter to someone you love. Consider older relatives who may not have gotten a “proper” letter in a long time, or pop a love note on your partners pillow. If you feel like there is no one you can write to – write your future self a letter and stash it somewhere, or write a note and leave it in a book in the library.

Miss Fairchild xoxo

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23 Responses to The Lost Art of Letter Writing

  1. This is gorgeous! Would you believe I saw a writing set in Savers the other day, picked it up and put it back cos it was $6? It had gorgeous roses and contained small and large note paper and the matching pen and envelopes. I put it back because I thought I never write to anyone so what’s the point. I’d love to send handwritten notes but my hand cramps up after a few words and I end up typing (and apologising for not hand writing 🙂 ) Every year I tell myself I’ll send cards and then another years goes by without doing that! When I was young I had so many letter writing sets and I loved the crisp paper and designs. Or I would trace pictures on to blank paper and use that 🙂

    • There is no reason to apologise for typing – it’s so much more convenient. I love getting handwritten mail and some lovely people have sent me postcards from all over the world. I was obsessed with letter writing as a little girl as I moved around so much and there was no facebook or email or sms. It was my only way to stay in touch with old friends.

  2. I used to write so many letters when I was younger – and because I was known for writing letters, people would give me letter writing ‘kits’ that I hardly every used… because I always felt silly using up all of the paper on one letter and having a billion envelopes left over! I found it very difficult to be concise and I would use up at least half a pad of lined A4 paper on a letter to my best friend.

    • I was the same! I stopped though almost as soon as I got the internet. he only exception being my great grandmother as she would send me these beautiful long handwritten notes and I didn’t have her phone number so I would write back. I moved around so much it was the only way to keep in touch and I would write these big epic letters and always have so many envelopes left over. T

  3. What a touchingly wonderful post and memory. When you described how your dear grandma had hundreds of cards just waiting to be sent in her desk, I audibly gasped, for I too had love letter writing and always have an array (though not hundreds – that would be marvelous) of cards (some of which I make myself) and stationery on hand to send out to pen pals, friends and relatives around the world. Far fewer people still write letters, as you discussed, then they once did, but I’ve never given up the art and honestly don’t plan to unless (goodness forbid!) the postal system as we know it goes the way of the dinosaur.

    ♥ Jessica

  4. You are absolutely write…I mean right…I used to have a regular pen pal that I would write to on a weekly basis. I looked forward to those envelopes coming in the mail- they seemd some fat and promising. They were filled with all our girlish dreams and hopes..our triumphs and minor tragedies and occassional scandals. I miss those letters and the sense of anticipation as the postman rode up to our house. Thansk for sharing the story of your nana, it’s nice to have unusual relies, they spice things up a bit. xx Shauna

    • Thanks for sharing your story lovely! It has been so long since I had a pen pal. My last one was a boy I was madly in love with and my letters just dripped with “can’t you tell I am in love with you” overtones. Being a boy I would get a one page letter back in response to my 20 pages….I still have them somewhere!

  5. Like others, I used to write letters by the hundreds as a kid– no Internet! We still write to each other, but its electronic and so very temporary. I’ve also noticed a sharp decline in holiday cards over the last few years. No one bothers anymore… Some of my most beloved treasures are old family letters. Sadly, future generations will know nothing about us. We won’t even have photographs, as modern prints don’t last very long, and who knows where all the digital stuff will end up. The irony is, we probably write and photograph more than at any point in history, but our grand kids will probably never see any of it!

    • Oh I so agree with every point you have made here. People not only don’t print, but they don’t back up. I found a disk of images from my first digital camera and every single image was corrupted. Not to mention a lot of the cheaper printing places no longer use archival inks and papers like old developers used to. I think it is time for me to start printing and writing stuff down for my girls!

  6. Teresa says:

    Such a beautiful post!

    I had a penpal when I was younger and we use to write so many letters each other. We sent letters back and forth for about ten years before it started to slowly end as we grew older and had more ‘adult’ lives. I really need to start writing letters again.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    (I love that your Nana sent you an email! Have an amazing time catching up with her.)

  7. Jennifer says:

    This is a beautiful post, I love the memories of your grandma’s card drawer. You’ve inspired me to try and handwrite some more – it is so personal and thoughtful to get a handwritten letter or card!

    • The last piece of handwritten mail came from you – all the way from Paris. I treasure it so much. You can always write to me (though 99% of the time I would forget to write back!).

  8. Harlow says:

    This week I went looking for a thank you note to send someone and really struggled to find a card or paper that was appropriate! I then came to the scary realisation that I have almost completely forgotten how to write by hand! My hand writing has disintegrated into what resembles the crazed scribbles of a mad woman as the only time I ever write by hand these days is to sign something…:P

    • LOL – I have to admit this is how I felt when writing. I don’t even write shopping lists any more, I just type it into my phone. I think practising my handwriting is going to have to be apart of my charm school journey!

  9. What a lovely post. I always used to love writing letters to relatives so much, but over the years I’ve got our of the habit. Mostly becuae the kids keep me so busy.
    I will try and put a few minutes aside to write to my nan, who I rarely get to see. I know she will appreciate it. xxx

  10. Jess says:

    Oh God this brought tears to my eyes! My nan means the same to me as you have written here but I have never even dreamed of saying it to her. She is not an affectionate person and we don’t talk like that in our house at all so although on many occasions I wish I had the cahoonahs to just come out with it but I never do. She is very poorly now and it breaks my heart to see her like this. I only saw her yesterday but we just chat about mundane things. I think that by acting normally and pretending it isnt happening means it isn’t. We never speak about her illness. Perhaps I ought to write to her to tell her what I think of her. This is a beautiful idea! Look how many people are inspired by this! X

  11. I do love handwritten letters, and as a big history enthusiast I worry about what will happen to the study of history without written correspondence. That’s how we know so much about John Keats or Abraham Lincoln – they wrote letters, and all the people they met wrote letters, and they saved them and their children saved them and created a record of their life and time. Emails and Facebook messages aren’t going to be saved by our children and carried on as a record of our age and that concerns me.

  12. I still write letters and send cards for all occasions. I enjoyed reading your lovely post. Just discovered your blog recently and have added you to my Reader.

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