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Thursday 22 February 2018

Love letters, plaintive notes and postcards from the edge

Serial letter hoarder Miriam O'Callaghan explores the joys of opening the mail - her own and other people's...

THE ARCHIVIST: ‘For years I’ve been collecting letters and postcards looted from basements, attics and house clearances’
THE ARCHIVIST: ‘For years I’ve been collecting letters and postcards looted from basements, attics and house clearances’

Miriam O'Callaghan

On the morning of July 31, 1862, the Daily Journal of Wilmington North Carolina publishes a letter headed "Extortion" and signed only "A Soldier from Wake". The correspondent attacks the "extortion" facing the Confederate soldier, his wages the "pitiful sum of $11 a month, often four, five, six or seven months before he gets it", devoured by the price of shoe repair, chewing tobacco, vegetables, among them Irish potatoes at "a dollar a peck, sir".

On the evening of July 31 1862, in the home of those potatoes, another correspondent lays his head on the rail-line at Salthill, allows the 11pm train from Dublin pass over it.

According to the papers, though his features are not discernible, he is of old and gentlemanly appearance. His name is not known. Inside his hat is found a note. This reads: "I have been sleeping on the rocks these two nights."

Generally, thoughts about the American Civil War involve my father's old record of its songs, The Blue and the Gray. But, often, when I'm on the DART through Monkstown-Salthill, I look at the rocks, think of the elderly gentleman writing his last letter.

Ten words, each unremarkable, which, in his life, he had used unremarkably. Until in their assembly and assembling they signal their own war, their own wages, their own extortion. Bedrocks of bad luck, bad decisions, bad marriage, bad hearts, bad wishes?

I grew up in a family of letter writers. My maternal grandfather supervised Taoiseach Jack Lynch's letter of application to work as a court clerk. The same man had serial correspondence with the bishop about the moral imperative of leaving to the Black Babies their infinitely superior black spirituality.

In turn, and in her gorgeous hand, his daughter, my mother, wrote to her friend in Africa, a nun; to my father's aunt in Africa, a nun; to my father's brother-in-law's aunt in Africa, a nun. Looking for her uncle in America, she wrote serially to the Salvation Army, the US Army and battalions of state and volunteer agencies.

When we were small and my father was ill and out of work, waiting weeks for social welfare, she wrote to Charlie Haughey. Within a week she had his handwritten apologies and my father's money.

When my father's aunt migrated from Africa to America, her origami air-letters home smelled of Jean Nate talc, felt light, cool, vaguely ashen. When she was promoted to Rome, her luxurious missives dropped with heft and significance into the hall, smelling of salvation, cypress trees, ermine, tiaras.

She wrote of the love of God and of her sisters by birth and religion, of the jasmine, pomegranates and lemon trees - actual lemon trees with actual white flowers and actual green leaves - in her garden.

When I was 12, as a gift, she sent me the blossoms of a lemon tree and the gold watch given to her late sister by her husband on their wedding day at Niagara Falls. I cut the dove-grey envelope, unwrapped the clear plastic container from its thick bandage of cotton wool and gauze, as if it were a miraculous blood relic.

In a sense it was, being my sole connection to my grand-aunt Kit, the glamorous east-coast American I had never met. The Roman epistle ended: "Wear it well, may it bring you happiness. Fondest love, Auntie Nancy."

For years I've been collecting letters and postcards looted from basements, attics and house clearances in mainland European cities. The World War I letters are the most precious: signs of life in industrial-scale death. At sunny antiques markets, they lie on trestle tables, like hostages emerging from captive darkness, pale, fragile, over-exposed.

Not one of the war letters is about hegemony. Be it in French, German or Italian, all are about home. In one, a Czech wife covers two sides of a field postcard to a soldier husband in minuscule script. At the end of what looks like more like a cipher than a letter, she takes her small child's hand in hers to sign their name in cerulean pencil.

For war correspondents, the letters are all about each other. But sometimes, is letter writing more about how we think about ourselves? Do our letters show us whether we are filling our life with the right things?

In World War II, letters found particular urgency, thrown from trains and cattle trucks, or smuggled or bribed out of interrogation centres, by men and women suddenly uncertain of their allotted time, certain of their fate.

The art writer Robert Tartakovsky's letter written just as he was being transported to Auschwitz from the transit camp at Drancy in Paris should be required reading for every European schoolchild. Or indeed every European adult. He begins "Yesterday I was picked to go."

But has letter writing that went from animal-hide parchment to cheap milled paper, been reduced to the post, the text, the email, the tweet? The efficiency of fibre-optic cable replacing the romance of the Mail Boat? The more I see of Donald Trump's tweets the more I believe they are missives - or missiles - sent to his exquisitely sensitive self. The recusal from the Paris Climate Agreement, partly on the basis that nobody will be laughing at America now, is suggestive of political Munchausen's By Proxy.

If there is no proxy for living, could the writing of letters be a useful way to ask and prove whether we are actually living our lives, filling them with real purpose as opposed to merely packing them with stuff? Would it be worth our while writing a daily letter to ourselves?

When my children were young, I wrote to them regularly. Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the mother cat who came and found her stray son Hide & Seek (don't ask) all in the same hand. While my son read the mother-cat's letter in red ink, explaining now she had found her son they had to leave immediately, to keep up with their colony - the black-and-white splodge was being buried at the bottom of the garden between the veronica and escallonia. (A neighbour had found him freshly killed by the 45 bus.) Recently, as my son was packing up his room, I saw he had that, and all the letters, from his childhood in a box.

Similarly, I have kept every note and letter he and his sister have written to me.

Globally, even this coming week, letters about cell changes or other abnormalities will make hearts squeeze. Likewise, the correction of testing anomalies will be greeted by joy, relief. As usual, the psychopaths who thrive on pain will do their best to do their anonymous worst.

But for life-giving reads try Letters to Sartre written by Simone de Beauvoir, the correspondence of Michelangelo with Vasari, of Virginia - Suor Maria Celeste - with her father, Galileo Galilei. Ted Hughes's letters are breathtaking and among my favourites.

This week, too, as I pass our old house, I'll think how the escallonia keeps the bones of Hide & Seek. But it is the letters written and read and kept with love that keep the truth, the memories of family.

Sunday Independent

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