On Mother’s Day, An Ode to Letter Writing

It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday.

I want to start by acknowledging we all have different stories to share. Some readers may be mourning the loss of a mother or friend, others processing a difficult parental relationship; some may be desperately wishing to become a mother while others are finding the very role of motherhood complicated and overwhelming. For anyone struggling, I’m sorry for your loss, hurt, frustration, or grief.

Today I’m sharing a piece of my story. This essay (or whatever one can call it) has been sitting – untouched – for several years, but I always wanted to share it on Mother’s Day. But where? With whom?

Now I have a space.

It’s long (shocking) and I’m aware it could use plenty of restructuring. But I tried to limit edits of the original draft because…well…it struck me when I pulled up this file – Mom writes long. Really long.

It’s a bit of a family joke how much I take after my mother. We look alike, sound alike, and think alike. We both have a tendency for “smoke to come out both ears” when we get worked up (translation: we’re stubborn and emotional). Apparently, I’m told, we even eat ice cream the same way.

But more than anything, I write like she writes.

The working title for this essay was An Ode to Letter Writing, but at the core sits A Letter To My Mother.

an ode to letter writing

One of my earliest memories is of Mom perched on the edge of a wooden chair – complete with forest green crocheted “footies” (to avoid scuffing our 1970s-era dining room linoleum) – in front of the Christmas tree.

I was about four, though this same scene was repeated for years, so I’m sure to be amalgamating memories. I always found a place on the floor by the tree; blonde hair, blue eyes, bubbling with the delight reserved for four-year-olds on Christmas morning. My father would have been there too, having made the concession of waking thirty minutes early to shave and get dressed. Two older sisters and a brother. And Mom, sitting on her chair, clipboard in one hand, a blue Bic ballpoint poised in the other.

Christmas Eve would have found her hunched over that same clipboard. Stockings stuffed – including toothpaste and soap for every member of the family (which, once unwrapped, would be back in the communal pile under the bathroom sink before the turkey was on the table) – and breakfast prepped in the refrigerator. Her world in order, Mom would sit, ruler in hand, preparing her grid. Recipient on the horizontal, giver on the vertical. This careful tracking was as traditional as the cinnamon coffee cake for breakfast, the scented Avon mistletoe figurine on the mantel, and the vintage star (with questionable wiring) glowing atop our tree.

And so Christmas found us – Dad smelling of aftershave, the coffee cake baking, Mom with her pen. One at a time gifts were unwrapped. This year, a stack of Nancy Drew books from Grammie, the one with a fiery temper who was continually offering unsolicited advice but was, nonetheless, recognized as a top-notch gift-giver. Next up, an alarm clock for my brother. A sweater for Mom. Some Licorice Allsorts for Dad.

Throughout the festivities there was, without exception, strict adherence to a single rule: before opening, admiring or using a gift you paused to announce the giver. And another block in that grid would fill up.

These were snapshots of our life and Mom was recording.

Before the ball dropped in Manhatten on New Year’s Eve, our local postal team carried away the results of Mom’s dutiful records. A thank-you to the opinionated grandmother (those Nancy Drew books sit on my daughter’s bookshelf today). A note of gratitude to my other grandmother, a soft-spoken woman whose cheerful smile (which she removed each night for a bath in Polident) belied the fact she was widowed by 35 with three small children. This year she had sent an elaborate tea set. My own children still use it, nibbling on chocolate chips and Cheerios piled on impossibly tiny plates, pouring Diet Pepsi out of the faded purple teapot. I wonder if Mom’s thank-you captured the generations of use ahead?

Another note for a wealthy aunt and uncle. The arrival of their Christmas parcel was a tradition itself – wrapped in brown paper and plastered with stickers, this was a gift that kept on giving. First, there was the anticipatory journey to our local post office, parcel notification in hand. Then the first glimpse of that giant box – bigger and heavier than a child dared hope. At home, Exacto knife in hand, the outer shell would be carefully removed to reveal a pile of boxes wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper. Double-sided tape, crisp corners, and lux ribbon were a given. Seeing those gifts under the tree was a perpetual delight and I always saved their gift for last.

The thank-you note for sisters Hazel and Marion (who always gifted Quality Street chocolates) would be hand-delivered at church on Sunday night.

Somehow, Mom managed to capture all the magic of that giving and receiving in her letters, maintaining relationships the way she knew best – through words and a $0.45 cent stamp.

My mother is an extraordinary woman. She raised four children, managed a household, worked part-time as a nurse until we were teenagers, and then launched a big career. She is a doer. She patiently led us through Bible-verse memorization for Sunday School, cooked every meal from scratch (with a little help from Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup), and created handmade Christmas gifts for decades. If you wanted something done, you asked my mother. Amidst the baked hams and scalloped potatoes, the cross-stitched mason jar toppers, the endless years of diapers – she wrote letters. Every two weeks, for decades, she wrote letters to my grandmothers. These recorded births, deaths, blizzards, new recipes, and the status of blooming peonies. They bridged gaps of time and distance as her own children grew and married. Miscarriages and stillbirths, cancer, surgeries. There was a lot of hard to share. But also awards, graduations, successes, new jobs, weddings, and the arrival of grandbabies. Often written in long-hand and spanning multiple pages, they were crafted at the dining-room table unless we were on summer vacation – then letters were written by the flickering light of kerosene lamps.

Perhaps most memorable to everyone were her Christmas cards (which were distinct from her Christmas thank-you notes; the holiday season warranted two letters from my mother). She devoted entire days to this activity.

As Mr. Zukerberg’s dorm room lay far in the future, this was her form of connection. She wrote to the bridesmaids from her wedding, classmates from nursing school, distant family members, friends old and new, and the church members we saw three times a week. In early November she would get out her tattered address book and work systematically from A to Z. American recipients were prioritized, since theirs took longer in the postal system and needed to be dispatched first. The cards weren’t ornate, always purchased on a post-Christmas sale the previous year. But the letters they contained were a work of art.

She told the same stories, recounted the same highlights over and over – but in a personalized way – all in her meticulous handwriting (only in recent years has she finally succumbed to the siren song of a more generic, typed Christmas letter). To the uncle who traveled for work, inquiries about destinations and hobbies; to someone whose loved one had passed, words of sympathy and hope. A few people responded in similar fashion but most, if we’re being honest, just attached their name to a generic greeting.

Yet my mother persisted. Year after year after year. Like spring follows winter, Mom’s letters were a constant; each one tinged with the beauty of recorded history. Her words gave meaning to our family story – a meaning that comes simply by sharing and connecting.

When I was 13 we moved. I likely wrote before this point, but here my recall starts. My letters, addressed with loopy adolescent handwriting, were filled with details of high-school drama. I sent these letters for years. I wasn’t looking for anything in return (and got few replies), which seems odd for a self-absorbed teenage mind – but even then I comprehended that the very act of writing was a gift of sorts. I shared my stories, my youth, and the world of possibilities in front of me, mostly for the benefit of elderly seniors (think: small Baptist church) and a few childhood friends I’d left behind.

Then one day I received an unexpected response.

I was in my final year of an undergraduate degree in Biology. The requisite hours spent dissecting pig fascia were behind me and I was doing a victory lap of sorts. Sitting alone in a summer rental, I opened a hand-addressed package. I didn’t recognize the sender information. The dull yellow of the mailer envelope was covered with black scuffs, paying homage to its journey.

But let’s back up and introduce a new character to my story.

Her name was Nina and she lived at the end of the road. When I say the end of the road, I mean that literally. The road that skirted my childhood home stretched up and down hills, twisted and turned, lurching precariously close to the side of a cliff face before it abruptly ended at the ocean. And there, nestled on the very edge of a cliff – near the very end of the road – was Nina’s house.

Nina was an artist, her husband a fisherman. The wharf from which he worked was at the bottom of that cliff. They attended our church, and I accompanied my Dad through years of visitation. Visits where Leroy, her husband, introduced me to his homemade pickled herring (an acquired taste, but a delicacy I loved) and showed me the jewelry he made from sea glass and stones tumbled in their basement.

Leroy died, Nina aged, and I moved away.

But I also stayed, I think, through my letters. I like to imagine those notes perched on Nina’s kitchen table, stuffed into her napkin holder. Or maybe my letters served as bookmarks in the novel on her bedside table. I wonder how she read them? I like to imagine she couldn’t wait. When she opened up her mailbox, did she smile? Did she save my letters for the end of the day, or tear open the envelope on the walk across the street? Did she laugh with me? Did she laugh at me? Hopefully both.

But Nina never wrote back. Not a single time in all those years.

Now back to that package. The letter was from Nina’s daughter, someone I don’t ever recall meeting, informing me that Nina had passed away. Nina, maker of homemade fish cakes (her home always smelled like fish, which wasn’t entirely pleasant). Nina, owner of the wood-paneled living room where I sat in a floral-patterned swivel chair and watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy because we didn’t have cable, but Nina did and she would sometimes invite me to stay for fishcakes with a side of Vanna White. Nina, who always set aside a special bag – (shhh: don’t tell anyone, it was a bigger bag) – of Halloween treats for me.

Nina the artist.

Her daughter wrote to tell me how much Nina had appreciated my letters. The letters that shared how my world was growing as Nina’s got smaller. That Nina was gone. The bulky envelope contained several of Nina’s paintings, watercolours she’d made in her little studio (also perched on the side of a cliff; she clearly didn’t have any issue with heights). Her daughter said she hoped the art would leave me with happy memories of Nina. Her art and my “art” bonding us across time and space.

And I do believe letter writing is art. Like sculpture and oil and lyric. The canvas – heavy paper, hotel stationery, Hallmark cards. The brush – a pen, pencil, crayon and, yes, even a keyboard. From the first tentative letters scribbled by a preschooler to the final, halting scrawl of an aging parent.

I’m not sure what place letter writing has in the modern era. In a world where our stories are told through the filter of Instagram or within the confines of 140 characters.

I send fewer letters in the mail now. Christmas cards, the occasional thank-you note. But each month I write and e-mail Family Updates – lost teeth, first bike rides (without the safety net of training wheels), potty-training successes (and failures), kindergarten concerts; the ups and downs of life have all made the cut. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, glimpses of our family’s life show up on screens down the street, across the country, and then ping-pong around the globe – Portugal, Denmark, America. I’ve saved every e-mail, full of details that would be hazy for me (newborn era, anyone?) and forgotten entirely by the kids, without this written history.

Julia Cameron talks about piecing together the story of her grandmother’s life simply by reading through her decades of letters in which she [the grandmother] recounted “a series of small miracles. [Her] secret lay in recognizing the quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is in the gift of paying attention.”

Letters help us pay attention. To celebrate more fully – find delight in the ordinary and share it with others; to grieve more deeply.

A few years ago my daughter performed in a local church play. A neighbor happened to be in the audience. The next day we came home to a plate of cookies from that neighbor – congratulating my daughter for her performance on stage (and Levi’s in the pew; he was shockingly well behaved for a then-toddler). Delighted by the cookies and the praise, my daughter picked out a thank-you card; a doughnut covered with sparkles that read “Thanks, with extra sprinkles!” I don’t know what she wrote, but I’m suspecting something along the lines of: “Thanks for the cookies. I liked them a lot.

It’s a start.

I watched her from the front window as she looked both ways and crossed the street in fading April light. She was in her pajamas already, a polar bear one-piece ensemble that should have been sent to the hand-me-down box months before. Delivery complete, she came home flush with accomplishment. There was silence for a few weeks and then a sudden appearance by the neighbor at our back door to express appreciation for her note. A beautiful cycle of thanks and connection and relationship, bridged with words.

You don’t get many hand-written notes these days,” said our neighbour, somewhat wistfully. “It’s really nice, you know.”

Actually, I do know. That’s why I write letters. That’s why Mom writes them, and why I hope my daughter writes them too. I can’t force her, of course. But I’ll keep writing mine and hope she writes hers. Maybe even to me.

Things come full circle, I suppose, and I now get a letter from my Mom every day. They aren’t handwritten, but they have Mom’s fingerprints all over them. She sends out hundreds of words (I told you I write like she writes) via our family text chain. Every day. My siblings and I know what wildlife she and Dad spotted through the front window over breakfast. What neighbours they passed on their afternoon walk, how her quilt is coming along, and what vegetables she’s planning to plant come June. We hear about blizzards and doctor’s appointments and art classes and, sometimes, the state of her laundry pile. Yesterday I learned all about her canoe trip down a local river; Dad, apparently, took a nap on the shoreline after their picnic lunch. I can’t remember, but I suspect she told us what had been on the menu. Egg salad sandwiches, perhaps?

It’s wonderful. Every word and description of her day makes me smile. Especially because I know This too shall pass.

This Mother’s Day, I’m so thankful for my mother. For everything she did, and does, for me. And for the deep impact of her written words over the years.

This letter, for lack of a better description, from me – well, it’s for her.

To my Mom, to Nina, to my daughter and all the other special women in my life – Happy Mother’s Day.

Header photo by Kate Macate on Unsplash

22 thoughts on “On Mother’s Day, An Ode to Letter Writing”

  1. Aw… this post brought tears to my eyes. First of all, because the kindnesses of the people involved- Nina’s daughter, your neighbor, your mom- are so moving. Secondly, because I lost my mom ten years ago, and when we went through her things I found that she had saved every single letter I ever wrote to her, starting with letters from camp when I was twelve. It was amazing to read back through those letters and relive so many moments of my life (many of which I had completely forgotten about.) At one point my sister just stared at me in amazement- she couldn’t believe how many letters I had written to my parents over the years. My sister wasn’t a letter writer, but I apparently was! Nowadays… not so much. One of my friends and I attempted to write letter to each other, but to be honest writing a long letter now makes my hand cramp up! So sad… I guess my hand muscles got lazy when email was invented. Now that I’ve read this post I’m going to try again though (my friend will be amazed- I think I’ve owed her a letter for well over a year.) There’s just nothing like a hand-written letter, and unfortunately I think with the next generation they will be a thing of the past.

    1. I thought of you, Jenny, when writing the intro to this post as I know you mentioned the pain of your mother’s passing.
      What a wonderful reminder of your relationship to have all those letters; I’ll admit I haven’t kept many mementos from my letter-writing years. That is one thing I appreciate about e-mail – it is much easier to trace and store!
      I never write long letters these days; short notes is the most I can muster. I have gotten so used to writing on a keyboard and it’s so darn efficient. I think it has much less to do with the length, though, and more to do with the thought. Getting any personal letter in the mail feels like such a boost to the spirits!
      I’m delighted you’re going to write to your friend. What a fun surprise; I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to hear from you this way <3

  2. What a sweet reflection on what seems to be a bit of a lost art. Admittedly, I do not write many letters anymore but my handwriting is so so awful – it takes so much focus for me to keep my writing as legible as possible. So besides sending thank yous, I rarely write letters! But I do email with my almost-99you grandma and I think she appreciates that she can actually read what I wrote without having to work at it. 😉

    I am not a saver of things, so I have probably thrown out all the letters I’ve received in my life… but I probably should have held onto letters from my grandparents and other people in my life as seeing a person’s handwriting really brings back memories and a warm feeling!

    1. I’m not a “saver” either. That’s why e-mail has been wonderful for that (I do track the update e-mails I send as they form a written diary of sorts for our family). I have several letters from my Mom that I’ve saved (she still writes letters to my kids, so I save some of those), and I have one book full of my grandmother’s handwritten notes in the margin (I only save it to have a sample of her handwriting). Beyond that, it’s all gone. Though I kept all the handwritten notes John and I exchanged when we were dating.

      I’m sure you grandmother loves hearing from you!

  3. I could not love this more if I tried. Your mother has set a great example of how much personal connection is worth, especially in a time where personal connection is seemingly harder and harder to come by.
    I also love that you found out that even though Nina never responded to your letters, they were meaningful and a source of joy for her. How sweet of her daugther to let you in on this unknown secret so many years later! <3

    I started writing letters in elementary school, at one point during my teenage years, I had penpals all around the world. I didn't keep in touch with all of them, as we all grew up and moved on with our lives, but I have a couple that I am still in touch with – one is a girl from Sydney, Australia. We've been penpals and friends for 30 years (and have met up a handful of times). We used to write very long, many pages-long!, letters to each other. I still have all of them at my parents' house and treasure them immensely.
    I might not write multiple-page letters often anymore, but I still try to send cards to people with a handwritten note attached and every day there is a personal letter in the mailbox, is a good day!

    I also still value email. People say email is going away and I have few friends who still use email. Everybody has moved on to messaging services that are often nothing more than quick "chats". Which, don't get me wrong, are worthwhile and meaningful, but lack the depth of connection that only a longer, thought-out letter-style email can provide.

    I think we can only lead by example and it's awesome that you're trying to pass on the art of letter writing to your kids!

    1. It was this incredible feedback I didn’t know I wanted to hear until it came – that Nina read them and obviously talked about them to her daughter to the point she reached out after her death! I didn’t stay in touch with her daughter, but gold stars to her for putting in that extra effort!

      I love that you have been pen pals with people for so long. I remember getting Highlights magazines as a child and they had this “message board” of sorts where people could write in to be matched with a pen pal.

      I love e-mail! I also really value texting with my family; as I mentioned my Mom sends long texts (they really are more like emails) daily, but since I’m not on social media it is the main way I see pictures of my siblings/their lives. We don’t chime in daily or even weekly – it’s mostly my Mom writing, but it feels nice to have that open line of communication.

      Keep up the good work with your handwritten notes 🙂

  4. This essay and the way you follow in your mother’s footsteps are a beautiful tribute. Happy Mother’s Day, Friend.

  5. I love this. I think you should pitch it to a magazine. You have such an excellent voice in your writing, and the Nina story is so sweet.

    1. Aww. Thanks, Sarah! It has lots of rough edges but maybe some day!!
      Nina was…so sweet. My parents actually have one of her full-size paintings and it is the only item in their house I’ve specifically asked to inherit!

  6. This was beautiful. It should be in The Atlantic or Real Simple or something. I loved the part about Nina especially.

    1. Aww, thanks (different!) Sarah.
      I’m loving how much Nina is resonating with everyone. She was quite a woman!

  7. This was such an utter joy to read! First, your mom sounds like a remarkable woman and it is so wonderful to get a glimpse of her through your writing. Second, my grandmother instilled in me the importance of letter writing and my mother the importance of thank you notes, so this resonates with me. My grandmother and I used to exchange letters (which she would then send back to me, with corrections in red!). I no longer write letters, although I do send email missives to my parents near-daily and to a dear friend less frequently. But it’s a valuable type of story-telling and relationship building that I love. And thank you notes!! While many, many people seem to have sent them packing, I still firmly believe in sending a little (handwritten) note in response to a gift or significant act of service. I am trying very hard to instill in my own daughter the beauty of a really well-crafted thank-you note, but she still sees it as a chore. (Fair. I have only, in recent years, seen it as more than a perfunctory act.)

    1. Thanks, Suzanne.
      My Mom is pretty swell!
      The corrections-in-red bit made me laugh. I don’t actually remember writing my grandmothers (I likely did?); they were both in declining health by the time I was a teenager…but I can see one of my grandmothers sending things back with corrections in red!
      I love that you write your parents so frequently; I think it’s a wonderful way to stay engaged with family/friends.
      Abby actually loves to write notes (well, mostly she likes to receive things in the mail!)…but there are times I insist upon it which is met with wailing and gnashing of teeth.
      I’ll admit I’m not great with thank-you notes these days. I used to do them regularly, but I’m more likely to send a thank-you text for a gift now. After wedding/baby showers were over, I fell off the note wagon. BUT I do include a lot of family/friends in my update e-mails so they do hear from me regularly. But that’s a bit of a lame excuse for not sending thank-you notes…

  8. What an incredible post!
    As a child, I loved writing and mailing letters and would send them to everyone in the family. My very favorite aunt never failed to write me back. I have kept some of the more recent letters from her but really wish I had kept those that she sent I was a child.
    Recently, I have been corresponding via mail with a couple of blogger friends. The letters aren’t really that long on either side but cover some of the “behind the scenes” that document life that may not necessarily be shared on our blogs. Which reminds me…I need to send a couple of letters.
    Truly, there is nothing better than finding a personal note in the midst of all the junk and bills that come in the mail.

    1. Thanks, Gigi!
      Receiving a card in the mail offers such a jolt of joy! And it’s so nice to slip one into the mailbox to go off into the world knowing the recipient is going to get that dose of sunshine in their day, amidst that pile of junk and bills. Then again, I’m obviously a bit biased when it comes to mailing letters the old-fashioned way!

  9. Elisabeth, this is so beautifully written. You have such a way with words. If I was reading this on my Kindle or in print, I’d be highlighted so many phrases! Please write a book. 🙂

    1. Stephany – what a lovely comment. Thank you so much for the encouragement and kind words!

  10. I loved this so much. Your mom is a combination of my mom and dad My mom didn’t have a grid, but you’d better believe that lists were distributed and we were expected to write and mail thank you notes in the next day or two. She’s continued this to the next generation by giving my brother’s kids thank you notes every holiday and birthday. I will say, they write lovely, teenager-level thank you notes. 🙂 (I still write them, too!)

    My dad wrote an astonishing number of letters to various “pen pals” (none of them were San, regrettably…) when I was growing up. Most often, these were friends who shared his passion for antique spectacles and related items. And, even better, many of them lived overseas! Our daily mail was so much fun to look through. 😀 He typed these while I was growing up as he has horrendous handwriting, and I fell asleep most nights to the sound of him typing away in his study next to my bedroom. Ah, memories. Now, he is an unbelievable email correspondent, although many of his friends have since died. 🙁

    I email my parents every day. I text my parents and brother many days. And I (still) text my ex several days a week. (He is, after all, still my best friend.) I also hand write cards – not every day but as often as I can.

    All of that to say… personal correspondence, and as you point out, the interactive nature of personal correspondence, is still tremendously important to me and many others. It may look different – emails instead of letters, shorter messages, etc. – but it still connects people. That, to me, is the most valuable aspect – connection. 🙂

    1. Love all these glimpses into your family history. Your parents seem like kindred spirits. I love that you write your parents each day; I’ll admit now that my mother texts EVERYONE in the family, I don’t respond as often as I used to, but I love seeing her update pop up each day around 5 pm.
      Connection – in whatever form that takes – is so critical for wellbeing and for establishing and deepening relationships.

  11. I just want to add my voice to echo what others have said above: this is definitely worthy of being submitted for publication somewhere. (Assuming that is something that would make you happy, of course – I don’t at all mean it in a pressure-y, adding-one-more-task-to-your-life way!) It is a beautiful and poignant reflection that is also beautifully written. I have actually re-read it several times in the last few days, just enjoying the words and thinking about what you’re saying!

    1. Aww. Thanks, Christine. You (and, as you’ve mentioned, various other readers) have been so lovely and supportive.
      I’d love to publish it sometime, I suppose, but have no ideas for the path forward at this point.
      Your mention of re-reading it truly warmed my heart; the stories are so near and dear to me and to see others respond with such kindness and warmth has been so satisfying.
      Thanks again!

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