How letter-writing shaped my life
Why a handwritten note means so much more than an email
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.
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.
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