The Gift of a Letter

Dar Naama, El Biar Algiers Jan. 6. 1928

My dearest Sibyl

Thanks for your dear letter – & now the day after came the notice of a parcel – up has come the most beautiful surprise of the white coat & the handkerchiefs – Oh, how I hug you & your mother for them.”

“For you,” Dave smiles as he hands me the yield from his trip to the mail box. My heart lifts as I see the return address in the familiar script of my granddaughter. Following a brief apology for her delay in answering my letter (a common opener for both of us!) she continues, “Now I’ll answer some of your questions” and proceeds to explain her relationship to each of the individuals gathered around their dining room table celebrating her 17th birthday, posted on Facebook. This is just the beginning of a newsy update on her activities, sports, classes, plans for the summer – and even thoughts about after high school graduation over a year away!

I relish each and every detail. And I muse over the circumstances that triggered The Letter Challenge and my good fortune, as a grandmother, for the granddaughters who took up the spontaneous offer almost two years ago. After our annual beach vacation, a remnant of the 14 grands observed me as I sorted through a box (suitcase!) of unused letter sheets and note cards. As they queried as to whether I would really use them all I had to admit that I had more good intentions than letters in me. I offered them handfuls of stationery with the promise that “if you write a letter to me I’ll write back.” And they did. The four or five girls who left with a stack of assorted writing papers have, from time to time, gladdened my life with a letter. And each missive has given me a glimpse into their daily lives spurred by the invitation of a blank sheet of paper and the promise of my return letter which includes bits of our lives, more questions about their lives – and an initial book of stamps “to use anytime for anyone.”

Oh the joy of a letter! A little gift winging its way over time and space, landing in my mailbox. An envelop personally addressed with my name. . . a lovely stamp in the upper corner. . . perhaps pretty paper or a picture card within. . . maybe a surprise tucked inside the folds of a card. . . and always the anticipation of the contents therein. Typed or hand-written, lined notebook paper or elegant stationery – little matter – just to to receive a letter is proof-perfect someone was thinking of me and took the time, made the effort to connect. Resisting the urge to tear open the envelop I usually retreat to my red chair, armed with a steaming mug of coffee, then ceremoniously slice open the envelop with a silver letter-opener, primed to savor the moment. A kind of ritual.

Many are the surprises contained within an envelop! A card with a teabag and paper napkin – inviting me to sip and read and remember shared moments . . . an original painting by the sender on the cover of the card. . . a cross-stitched scripture verse. . . an old fashioned handkerchief . . . a book list for summer reading. . . a photograph from times-past from one culling her picture files. . . a quote card within a decorated border. . . New Yorker cartoons. . . an original poem written with different colors of ink and flourished with tiny stickers. . . pressed autumn leaves. . .

The sentiment that prompts the letter, of course, is at the very heart of the communication. Sometimes it is a straight-forward “thinking of you” or “missing you” or “thank you.” Other times it has an important message to convey – instructive, informational, sentimental – words, perhaps easier written than spoken. “I’m sorry.” My mother, emotionally reticent, found it easier to praise and affirm – to express her heart – in written words than spoken. Her letters I cherish, not only as a tangible remembrance of a mother no longer living, but to read and reread when I crave those maternal words of love. She, in turn, realized the value of the letter. When her life-long “best friend” died, she reread her correspondence (a final visit), then folded them in pretty tissue, secured them in a satin ribbon and sent them to her friend’s eldest daughter – an entirely new and welcome glimpse of the mother she mourned.

I have long valued the annual Christmas card exchange as our single link to some friendships that go back to childhood and youth. A means to keep relationships from afar current with our changing lives. But my husband’s four unexpected and unrelated surgeries this past year (each with a good outcome, thank God) demonstrated to both of us the importance of a card: some a simple “get well” or “thinking of you;” others with a note or message, a quote card or a scripture verse enclosed. Who would have thought such simple greetings would have such a powerful impact. To know you are being thought of . . . prayed for. . . Each card I read in the moment; many of them Dave read later. Again and again. Lesson learned: It is the thought that counts.

A letter is, sometimes, all we have of a loved one. I regretted my recent purge of paper – a rare discipline – when I learned of the unexpected death of a friend from England who wrote like she talked (“I’m writing this on a cold and frosty evening and realising that winter has finally set in as I don a second long-sleeve jumper and turn the heating up!”) inviting one into her heart as she shared her setting along with her thoughts. Later I chanced upon a cache of letters that survived the purge and retrieved a half-dozen vintage letters from that friend. I brewed a pot of tea and luxuriated in her choice words and tender heart – a piece of my friend that cannot be taken from me. Yet another perk of letters.

Lilias was a consummate letter writer. How she found the time to attend to that discipline is beyond my ken. Perhaps it was, for her, not only a means to convey information but a life-line to friends and acquaintances separated by a continent. The few surviving letters (outside those printed in early biographies) reveal a personal aspect that biography alone cannot express. Her special relationship with her niece Sibyl is well-documented but facts about that relationship don’t compare to an intimate glimpse into their “conversation.” It is through the printed words scrawled on tissue-thin ivory paper that we feel her heart. Playfully chiding Sibyl for sending her handkerchiefs and “such a lovely jerkin” – “such perfectly scrumptious things – they are just perfectly beautiful & fitting into real needs . . .” – she notes “we find ourselves exceedingly chilly with the snow far down on the hills” during a wintry January. She concludes with “Oh such hugging thanks -” “All lovingest wishes – Your loving I. L.Trotter.”

The last year of her life, her correspondence was faithfully recorded in her Log Book, documenting individuals whose lives she touched through paper when she could no longer connect in person. It is daunting in scope – often writing as many as 15 letters a day – ranging from counsel to local Algerians to Amy Carmichael in India. She wrote the mother of a young English woman joining the Band, reassuring her that her daughter would be well loved and cared for. She sent no less than 52 calendars with quotes from Edith Hermann’s Creative Prayer, as she herself continued to explore the mysteries of prayer. Congratulations for babies, condolences for deaths, thank you’s for services given were written alongside letters of vision for the future of the Algiers Mission Band and the cover design for a new magazine The Thirsty Land. While we would love to see her letters to John Ruskin, the decades-long search for the “missing Ruskin letters” to Lilias was rewarded with the discovery of 47 letters that reveal a range of his thoughts and emotions in the unique relationship between two friends and correspondents.

Lilias joins a long line of letter-writers who both inspire and challenge with their indomitable discipline. Consider the Apostle Paul. An estimated 28% of the New Testament is a collection of his letters. History written in letters. My bookshelves are lined with compilations of letters: the unlikely company of E.B.White, Colette, Virginia Wolf, Van Gogh, Rilke, Elisabeth Elliot, Bonhoeffer – to name a few. “Too busy to write,” I protest. Some of the busiest people I know – college president, best-selling author, sought after speaker – somehow have found the time, mustered the discipline to respond, in print, to queries or to gratitude for a word of encouragement. C.S.Lewis was famed for a commitment he made to God, before he was “famous,” to write back to anyone who valued his work or advice enough to write to him – a promise he kept long after it became a daily challenge, costly in time. (Wish I had written him!)

Letters nourish old friendships and help cultivate new ones. They form bulwarks against loneliness and isolation; they elicit intimacy and a sense of immediacy. They provide the possibility of savoring special sentiments or a loving turn of phrase. Letters may, for some, give wings to thoughts and emotions difficult to verbalize. We can return to them when our spirits need refreshment. They provide material upon which to reflect or to relish in the rereading that was skimmed over in the living. Permanency. Often they provide documentation of lives well-lived, relationships well-loved. Posterity.

Having extolled the virtue of letter writing, I must make a confession: I have more stationary than time; more good intentions than action. My planning calendar keeps moving my correspondence forward to the next week. My letters to my beloved granddaughters more often than not begin with an apology – noted in the most recent letter: “Dear Grandma, It seems as though we both always start off our letters apologizing for the delay. But I guess it just means there’s more to share!” Letter writing is a shared experience. And good intentions are as good a starting point as any.

So I champion the gift of a letter. I am a cheer-leader for the United States Postal Service. Even with the rising cost of stamps, I find myself praising the postal system while a worker weighs a mailing (“Stamps please. No meter mail.”). “This is probably the best value around,” I add. “Think, for this small price, my letter will travel over miles – sometimes oceans – and be delivered to the very doorstep of the intended.” What a deal!

Musings, spurred from today’s mail, have taken me on quite a journey. I’ve effused over the joy of receiving a letter and lauded the merits of the same. I’m both inspired and convicted by the example of a host of letter-writers. But what is my take-away? “Do unto others what you would have done to you,” is my point of personal challenge. I love to receive letters. I can assume others do as well. I will never go down in history for volume, frequency or brilliance in letter-writing but. . . I can do better. One letter or one card a week won’t break my schedule nor make another person’s life. Yet it might bring a jolt of joy into someone’s day. A “thank you” for a kindness given. A memory shared. “Thinking about you” to someone living alone. A compliment for a virtue or job well-done, past or present. I can draw from the well that has refreshed my spirit.

Who shall I write today?

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3 Responses to The Gift of a Letter

  1. Debbie Boulware says:

    Your writing is exquisite, your choice of words perfectly arranged. But it is your message that is paramount, always spot on and convicting. Thank you for spurring us on to go deeper, to love one another, to connect and to feel, to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. I just may grab that stationery that I made the other day, the blank pages that have been laying around with good intentions, and cross off at least one of the many recipients on my long, overdue list. And thank you for continuing to weave Lilias so beautifully in our lives; because of you, her heart and her Light still shines.

  2. Carole Miller says:

    Dear Miriam, how beautiful and such an encouragement to “just do it” . Thankyou for encouraging me today Love and Prayers, Carole

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