One of the things I remember from my childhood is letters: letters my mother wrote slipped into first day covers to her brother far away in Australia; letters she received from him and letters from other family and friends. Letters were an important form of communication for her. Then, a postage stamp was a lot cheaper than the cost of a phone call, and it didn't matter if you were out when the communiqué arrived, unlike a telephone call (and an answering machine or voice-mail service are not the place to leave personal communication). A letter could be savoured, and read at your own leisure.
In secondary school, my French teacher handed out forms for the International Youth Service for those wanting penpals. She said it would help us practise our French and other language skills. I jumped at the chance, completed the form and handed in the money. Within a couple of months, I received two letters: one came from France, from a girl whose name I think began with the letter J, a Josephine or Jacqueline perhaps; the other came all the way from Singapore. I was so excited having a letter from such an exotic place. I wrote back to both, but committed a faux pas with the one from Singapore. I didn't realise that they write surname before first name, and the girl wrote to correct me. Somewhere along the line, I stopped writing, maybe due to exam revision and pressure, and lack of time, but then that's just an excuse: I had time to go window-shopping, play computer games and help my dad with the gardening. I did correspond with a girl in Germany, part of a school exchange project but that also didn't last much beyond the exchange visits.
After university, I went Interailing round northern Europe with my mother, visiting Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, even going to Hell and back. Along the way, I met some interesting people and even one from my past, from my secondary school in the same year but we were in different classes. I exchanged addresses with a couple of the new people, intending to write to them but either I never did or I didn't receive a reply.
Then, I decided I wanted penpals again, placing adverts via a newspaper and its associates worldwide. I had some responses but only one blossomed into a long correspondence. Life became busy again, with so much to do and so little time, and I had a baby, so even my long correspondence suffered a bit. I found myself losing friends from university although one did write, well, I mean type for a while sending me half-drunk/half-asleep composed missives. These actually made me laugh, and I recently heard a quote somewhere that through Laughter comes Wisdom.
About 5 years ago, I decided I wanted to try to recapture my German skills, when I was really quite fluent and was quite a competent reader, but ich hatte fast alles vergessen. I remembered my French teacher and sought new penfriends. Unfortunately, I was finding the German was just out of my reach (perhaps it was the course I was on), and many of the German correspondences did not work out. Now, I correspond with over two dozen people around the world, ranging from a sweet 18 year old Lithuanian girl whose English is marvellous and she is contemplating studying at a UK university, to people with adult children and grandchildren. Letters have become an important part of my life, although no longer for my mother due to her arthritis making it difficult for her to write more than just a postcard and now she prefers to use the telephone to keep in touch, even ringing her sister-in-law in Australia every couple of months.
This year, I turned 40 years old and my mother will turn 80. Although her health is reasonable, in the next decade, I expected she will pass from this life and I hoped she would leave me with her letters: the ones from her brother spanned over 40 years. However, the week of my birthday, she informs me she had shredded all her letters. I keep all the letters I have received, and I also hoard letter-writing paper and other stationery for eventual use. I recently came across a review from a psychiatrist on a book about hoarding, written by a psychologist and a professor of social work studying hoarders. For one woman, the review said that possessions help her preserve her identity and relive past events. When I heard my mother tell me she had shredded those letters, a personal family history, I felt a part of me yet to come disappear; I am lessened, and will not be able to experience those events of my family's past. She has kept family photos though. Although a picture can tell a story of a thousand words, it is still just an image and without words, has no meaning: words come from thought itself.