Mum: What’s a Penpal…?

Recently I jettisoned a sideboard in our house. This meant emptying it of a large bag of letters dating back to my school days. I didn’t jettison these – heaven forbid! I browsed through them for a while, feeling overwhelmed by nostalgia and lost in memories. Here’s the letters from friends complete with little drawings that cheered me through struggles to find my way at college, here’s the mysterious Valentine’s card I received and subsequently unmasked the sender (which was a mistake for us both, the illusion having been so much more satisfactory!), here’s postcards from forgotten holiday acquaintances. They are faded in places and some of the ink is smudged, but the memories spring into life when reading them.


Keeping in touch these days is easier than ever. In fact, having found some letters from an American friend I’d lost touch with in this stash, led me to not just wonder what he was up to, but track him down in a very short time and email him to ask (not as stalker-ish as it sounds!). However emails just don’t conjure up the same excitement. Perhaps it’s something to do with the effort that was previously required. Not just dashing off a couple of lines and pressing ‘Send’, but writing a whole letter, putting it in an addressed envelope, finding a stamp, posting it and then WAITING for a reply. It showed you cared about someone that you were prepared to put the time in. And prepared to wait for that reply.
I realise I must be getting ever closer to the ‘grumpy old woman’ who thinks things were better before, but I genuinely believe the convenience of being able to be in more immediate contact with people brings a downgrade in the importance of that communication, as well as the inevitable downside of never being permitted to be out of contact from ‘the office’. We’ve lost the savouring of that wait and the delight when the post yielded more than bills and an unwanted catalogue. You can print out an email but it doesn’t carry the same weight, metaphorically, if not literally. I feel sorry for those born in the last 20 or so years who will never have the joy of a letter plopping through the door.


We are in a permanent state of peering at others’ lives through social media, but remaining hidden because no-one knows you are peering unless you join the conversation. I have probably a moderate to high level of ‘peering’ – I am capable of doing other things, but quite often flick onto Facebook or Twitter if the programme I’m watching isn’t all that thrilling. And what a Pandora’s Box Facebook is. You start by looking at pictures of a friend’s birthday, then find yourself segued onto their third cousin once removed’s wedding in Barbados, before the invitable clickbait onto ‘Shock-horror-Celebrities That Aren’t Very Famous And Now Look Hideous’ .


We all know that our Facebook ‘friends’ extend way beyond the handful of close intimates we actually have and that certainly isn’t all bad. I have acquaintances from various stages of my life and enjoy the banter and comments we exchange. Without that we would have completely lost touch. But I’m sad about the loss of letters. Not very far in the future, you can imagine these scribbles being pored over in a museum as precious artefacts from a forgotten age. If I can find the time (sigh!), perhaps I will dig out my address book and send a letter to someone. Join me…?

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