I’ve always been a writer. Not just out here in public, where everyone and anyone can read me, but privately, in the comfort of my home, at my desk, or curled up on my sofa, lap tray, pens, paper and postage stamps in place. I am a letter writer. A card sender. A paper lover.
Hand-scribed correspondence is an obsession that manifests itself most noticeably in the months leading up to Christmas, months when I haul out my Palmer penmanship, perfected years ago with Parker fountain pen, inkwell and blotters — taught in grueling detail by the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary of Mount Carmel, the French Catholic school of my childhood. This tradition was further inspired and nurtured by my mother, whose penchant for cards, notes, letters and postcards were unrivaled in our neighborhood, and my grandfather, whose extensive collection of early 20th century postcards and the notes scribed upon them are astonishing.
Not only did I cultivate penmanship with old-style writing instruments (pens, nibs, ink bottles and blotters), I did much of it in French, a great source of pleasure to my Canadian grandmother, who rarely spoke a word in English to any of us out of sheer stubbornness. At one point in time, when my grandmother’s own hands became too frail, too gnarled by arthritis to curl around a pen, I wrote letters for her. She would sit quietly in her rocker at our low, double wide kitchen window, looking out on a froth of maple trees in radiant fall mantle. I would sit curled at her feet, paper on a kitchen cutting board, scribing messages to her Canadian cousins, aunts and uncles, all of whom lived in our ancestral neighborhoods of rural Quebec.
As a child, I perused my grandfather’s album, a collection of 100-year-old postcards written when postage stamps were a penny and postcards were the main source of communication about who’s meeting who in which house or barn or park on Saturday afternoon for music or apple-picking or a game of cards. Quick notes in a rapid hand, duly noted and filed, one after another, in his thick faded satin album.
I began to believe this writing obsession was a family thing, a genetic code archived deep within our DNA, an obsession that, if I have read my family tree correctly, goes even further back to my journalist/relatives of 1850’s Canada.
Thus, dipping into heritage, compulsion, obsession — whatever I might call it — I start each new year shopping for holiday cards in January, when the most beautiful cards are reduced to a pittance. I am nothing if not practical. I shop summer sidewalk sales in small New England towns, where I always find great sets of cards with elegant envelopes for 75% off last year’s price. Victorian Papers [my favorite and frequented mail-order catalogue] is a “best friend,” a reliable source of fine stationery and cards. I crave beauty, and old-fashioned sentiment, in the cards I send to my friends. Favoring the styles and images of a bygone era, or cards of remarkable natural elegance, I want cards that are fairly unique, that scream “Christine sent this…” — and I often find it in the pages of Victorian Trading Company catalogues.
My writing process begins in late September, when I organize my lists: overseas, cross country, professional, alumni, local and “attach to gift.” I peruse my collected cards, matching image to recipient. And the writing begins.
By mid-October I have a stack of “cards with brief notes written inside” and “cards that require signature only.” There, signed, sealed, stamped, and awaiting inclusion of a letter are a religious or Victorian card for Bill, a country-style card for Robin, an eco-friendly recyclable card for Sara, something romantic for Frank, or funny for Warren, something pretty or whimsical for Jean. Or maybe they’ll all get one of the “perfectly elegant” cards that I find I simply could not resist…a card that spoke to me and whispered “Buy me; I was made for you.”
Another stack of envelopes stand tilted against my computer tower, an unsealed stack that requires detailed letters. One for Irene, our childhood neighbor now living with family in New Hampshire. One for my brother. One for my cousins in Connecticut to be read at the monthly family gatherings. One for my new-found Canadian family, the collectors and keepers of our 400-year-old family tree.
I gather my stationary: embossed linen paper, perhaps with floral borders or brushed edges, in soft colors. I favor Victorian designs and earth/nature paper, sometimes handmade. Perhaps an egret in a marsh in the lower corner of the page, or a spray of wisteria trailing across the upper edge.
In November I begin those detailed letters, sometimes three or four pages in length, my conversations with old neighbors, old friends a distance away, and relatives I rarely see but cherish from afar.
I curl up with a cup of hot tea, spiced cider or hot chocolate, and put pen to paper, leisurely writing the events and the feelings of the year now almost past, filtering in anecdotes and remembrances of times shared: the “remember when’s.” I season those thoughts with hopes and dreams, plans and good wishes. I ask about grandchildren, pets, projects that were underway last time we wrote…the minutia of lives shared in occasional encounters rooted in shared history. I’ve acquired copies of pictures by then, and tuck one or two inside the crisp fold of each letter.
In an age where e-mail provides immediate gratification and instant communion, I am, I realize, an anomaly.
Yet just as I love the feel of books with crisp pages to be turned, I love the feel of this paper in my hands. I love knowing that something I have touched, that I have taken the time to prepare, now rests in the hands of a friend. Just as I love the feel of their envelopes in my hands, the crisp of the paper as I slice open the seal, the texture of the paper as I unfold their cards or their stationary, the words that a beloved friend took the time to write in their own hand.
Just before I left New England for Tennessee, one of my friends, knowing how much I savor the solitary pleasures of letter writing, gave me a gift of stationary, a Magnolia pattern with matching writing instruments, housed in a lovely floral box. I’ve long since exhausted the stationery, but refill the box constantly, and each time I open its double covers, I run my hands over the surface, remembering how finely wrapped it was, and how the first envelope inside was self-addressed to the giver, with a little note from my friend: “Write, please! And often.” I do.
Reprinted from Business Clarksville with permission of the author.