When Kiran Sidhu rediscovered letters her aunt had written 20 years ago, she could picture her and hear her voice. The discovery transported her to a precious time in her family life in a way that a text or email never could
A small tug on the thread of nostalgia can unravel a whole garment. One Sunday afternoon, I came across a trove of letters in a battered hatbox in the cupboard underneath the stairs. The letters had been written in the 90s while I was at university; some were from friends, but most notably, many were from my aunt, Martha. I was 20 and she would have been 30. She died at the age of 36, so the letters had a piercing poignancy.
The letters were not a dramatic discovery of a fossilised communication method (I am still well acquainted with letter writing – I spend many of my Sundays writing to friends and family). Some things in life need distance for us to acknowledge their true value – youth, health and letters. I have always been enamoured with the romance of letters, but even I did not imagine the significance of something that was signed, sealed and delivered 20 years ago.
There is a certain deliciousness that comes with opening a letter that has already been opened decades previously; there is a feeling of rediscovery and an introduction to a lost conversation.
I opened these quietly ageing letters, but not without trepidation; would they bring anguish or comfort? I recognised my aunt’s flowery writing and how her capital As were simpy larger lowercase As. I sat cross-legged on the floor as if it were story time, an adult story fragranced with childhood romance; Aunt Martha, storyteller extraordinaire.
“Kiran, it’s raining outside and your mum just left my house. Your mum made pakoras at mine and we laughed about how you still can’t make a curry! Hurry up and come home, I’ll bake a cake. Oh, yeah, forgot to tell you, I miss you!”
It is magical how words arranged in a particular order, immortalised in a letter, can make their way through your fingertips and travel through your veins until all you can feel is heart. Her words described moments in time, now lost in space, or wherever it is that cherished moments and departed souls go. My aunt and my mother had untimely deaths, but the letters I held in my hands cemented a time when they both walked the Earth.
I imagined my aunt sitting at her desk, coffee by her side, maybe a slice of cake (she was a keen baker), casually writing to her niece, unaware that she was documenting my family’s history; that, years later, I would literally hold her letter close to my heart, a remnant of past times and reminder of the way my now-fractured family once was.
One letter expressed my aunt’s concern at my capacity to drink. “Hey Kizz Wizz, I’m worried about you. Not sure if I like you drinking until you’re sick! Your letter has worried me!” I remember reading it and how it had annoyed me in my youthful bravado. Now as I re-read it, I could clearly hear her voice in the singsongy way that she spoke, and was grateful that I had an aunt who cared. I’m not much of a drinker now: was there really a time I could drink that much?
These ageing and yellowing objects are the reasons I still write letters in an age where such a practice is seen as archaic. There is a joy in receiving a letter in the post, a hidden gem: a piece of someone’s heart among the bills. Getting an email or text really doesn’t compare: it is just another screen to look at. TV screen, computer screen, smokescreen.
Emails and texts act like the middleman between the author and recipient, technology even dictates your words by guessing them and filling them in for you. The pen, however, begs to be enslaved; it needs to belong to you. I would have never been able to enjoy my aunt’s flowery writing if she had sent an email, where all of her As and Ts would have looked the same. And I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the silly face she drew as she signed off every letter. A letter is an act of creation in a way an email can never be. When someone sends you a handwritten letter, you receive a part of who they are.
There is a ritual in writing a letter, there are small decisions that need to be made: which paper, which pen? I like the way my pen hovers above the paper and the tiny moments of stillness as I consider my choice of words. I like the way writing letters forces you into a quietude in a helter-skelter world. Once posted, I imagine its journey, from the postman to the van, the sorting office to the postman who will hand-deliver it. I think about all the hands that have exchanged my letter in order for it to drop with a little thud on the recipient’s floor. I imagine the smile on my friend’s/aunt’s/cousin’s face when they see what I have sent. Handwritten letters are tangible works of art as unique as your fingerprints: like your DNA, your letters belong to you.
Hidden between the books on my shelf are notes and cards from anniversaries and birthdays – it is my way of keeping them. They are secrets that are whispered among the books, that tell tales of love and adventure, they join hands with famous authors in our need to tell stories. They are hidden between my philosophy books, squeezed between books by George Orwell and Roald Dahl. And every now and again, when I reach for those favourite books, an old birthday card will fall out, or a loving note from my husband, or a card from my friend. To me, these things are also great works of art and literature. They are reminders of what it is to be part of the human race, what it means to love and what it means to be alive.
I never remember the emails or texts I receive, they all eventually go in the trashcan of my mind and the cute little icon on my laptop, never to be magically rediscovered. They seem to exist only to be binned.
I am so grateful for my aunt who took time to write letters, within which she will for ever reside. It is a happy reminder that we once were, as a family, complete and happy. I am not sure why we choose to be more perishable and so transient, why we wish to push handwritten letters to a bygone era, perhaps it is just a part of being a disposable society?
Go ahead then, let’s make ourselves more disposable by not documenting the things that matter, by silencing our hearts and hiding the etchings of our souls, let the wind blow them away, never to be caught, because who cares enough to sit and write?
This was previously published by The Guardian.
Kiran Sidhu is a writer, journalist and pop philosopher. Her work has appeared in many places, including The Telegraph, I-News, The Independent, Woman Magazine and Breathe. Find her on Twitter @kiransidhu41