How let­ter-writ­ing shaped my life

Why a hand­writ­ten note means so much more than an email

Prima (UK) - - Contents -

In the clas­sic books I read as a child grow­ing up in Ire­land, I en­vied how letters were of­ten in­te­gral to the char­ac­ters’ lives. I longed for an en­ve­lope ad­dressed to me to ar­rive. So, al­though dev­as­tated when, aged eight, my big sis­ter, Mary, moved to Eng­land to work, her ab­sence pro­vided me with an op­por­tu­nity. For the first time, I put pen to pa­per, re­lay­ing in de­tail all my fam­ily news, pri­mary-school high jinks, plus wild-eyed ob­ser­va­tions of life.

I re­mem­ber Mary once writ­ing to say she loved re­ceiv­ing my letters be­cause oth­er­wise the only post was bills – I mis­read this as ‘Bill’s’ and was driven mad won­der­ing who the mys­te­ri­ous Bill was. I was so dis­ap­pointed when I asked Mary in per­son and re­alised my mis­take!

Writ­ing those letters taught me how to com­mu­ni­cate ideas, dreams and sto­ries on pa­per, and how spe­cial it was to con­duct a re­la­tion­ship by post. Eleven years older than me, Mary could have be­come a stranger while away, but in­stead we grew closer.

Mak­ing con­nec­tions

Bit­ten by the let­ter-writ­ing bug, I couldn’t stop. One of my favourite (and very nerdy) things to do was to write to or­gan­i­sa­tions re­quest­ing ‘ma­te­ri­als and in­for­ma­tion’ for school projects. I wrote to ev­ery­one I could think of, re­ceiv­ing parcels from the Irish Wildlife Trust, The Gai­ety Theatre, the Elec­tric­ity Sup­ply Board… I once sent a let­ter to a TV mag­a­zine com­plain­ing that they of­ten cut the kids’ pages to make room for ad­ver­tis­ing, which was very in­con­sid­er­ate to their ‘fu­ture read­ers’. They printed the let­ter and sent me a T-shirt that I proudly wore all sum­mer.

Go­ing global

Aged 10, I had dozens of pen pals from all over the world – their child­hood con­cerns and ad­ven­tures were a mir­ror of my own. This helped me un­der­stand that no mat­ter how dif­fer­ent we may seem to other peo­ple on the sur­face, we have more in com­mon than that which di­vides us. It in­stilled in me a con­fi­dence to travel and en­gage with other cul­tures.

Lost and found

At 16, a boy I was en­am­oured with from afar wrote to tell me that he had ‘feel­ings for me’ but if I didn’t feel the same to just never men­tion the let­ter as he would be too mor­ti­fied. Only, I never re­ceived the let­ter, so he qui­etly ac­cepted my si­lence as re­jec­tion. The truth wasn’t re­vealed un­til a decade later when we were both adults at home for Christ­mas. Even af­ter all that time, it dealt a cruel blow. That let­ter is still the most beau­ti­ful one I never re­ceived…

Letters of love

I had bet­ter luck later in life. I met my part­ner, Demian, eight years ago – a tour­ing mu­si­cian at the time, he would send a post­card or let­ter from ev­ery town he vis­ited. I have kept them all, se­creted away in a bat­tered old red suitcase. They are phys­i­cal arte­facts from our life to­gether and mean so much to me, un­like the long-for­got­ten texts and emails we also sent. We still write to each other when­ever one of us is away, and I hope we al­ways will. As the poet John Donne once said, ‘More than kisses, letters min­gle souls.’

He­len in the T-shirt she won elen and Demian ill write to ach other With older sis­ter Mary

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