Thursday, 23 October 2014

Lost Letters Found

My husband’s parents died within a year of one another and as he had to sell their house, he was forced to simply pack their lives up so the new owners could move in sooner rather than later. There was no time to sort, so in the end everything was packed and relegated to the attic. Recently we took on the task of going through the cartons. It was not easy sorting through everything, especially for my husband, as he never allowed himself the luxury of grieving for his beloved parents.

Our attic was wall to wall cartons, containing an entire household. Slowly we set about organising and sorting through it all. It was sad at times, but in another sense, we had an opportunity to put things into perspective and to revisit fond memories. There were times when it was too difficult to go on, but through our efforts I have been given a once in a lifetime glimpse into the lives of my late in-laws whom I never had the pleasure of meeting and I feel as though I have truly met them as a result.

One of the first things we tackled was the stamp collection.  K's mother was an avid stamp collector and there were six large cartons to attest to that fact. Growing up, my own father was a keen philatelist and that is where my interest in stamps was born. I was a bit unprepared to take on six big boxes of stamps, mostly loose and unsorted, but I set about it one carton at a time. K wasn’t really interested in stamps but day by day he would check on my progress until finally he just joined in sorting. Hundreds of first day covers and mint plate blocks later he has a new found appreciation for this particular passion of his mother’s.

Several days into the “big sort” I reached for the next carton and under the initial layer of stamp paraphernalia, I found a lifetime of correspondence in the form of cards, letters and postcards and so we put the sorting on hold in order to explore this wonderful discovery.

Having a firm root in letter writing, I was thrilled to be privy to what I considered an intimate look into the lives of my late in-laws. What was even more amazing as we began to go through these things was that there were also drafts of letters by Phil and Johanna (my in-laws) that they had sent which added an incredible amount of depth. In reading the cards and letters and poring over the photographs still neatly tucked inside some of the envelopes, I gained a much deeper perception not only of who my husband’s parents were, but into their extended families as well. They suddenly were real to me.

Mrs. B.’s letters were much more extensive than her husband’s as she kept in contact with her sisters, one of whom lived in New Zealand and the other in Australia. There were also distant relatives in Holland and the occasional letter from Indonesia where she grew up in the Dutch East Indies. Scattered amongst all this were items received from the Red Cross during WWII when she was a prisoner of the Japanese. It was quite poignant to see the little copy books with words from happy songs carefully transcribed and patterns for things to embroider, designs she made herself, in hopes of having the luxury of being her own mistress one day and bringing them to life. As we went through these things, a picture emerged of someone I know I would have loved dearly.

Mr. B.’s letters were not so many and yet I could see he was a man of integrity and honour. There were letters from his own mother and father, addressed to him while he was away fighting in WWII. Timeless sentiments of how proud they were of him, and how their life progressed as he was away. Mundane items shared, like what they were growing in their vegetable patch, giving him some of the warmth of home. Later there were letters to and from his siblings displaying his fondness and his responsibility for them even though he was the youngest. Delving into his correspondence I came to enjoy his sense of humour and to learn that deep down he was an old softie—his secret is safe with me though. Mr. B didn’t have bundles of letters, he was a man of few words, and yet he has left a great impression upon me.

I came away from this task, thinking what a joy it really was, a labour of love. It’s renewed my passion for letters and has changed the way in which I compose my own correspondence in that I have a better sense of what to write now. I write not only to my pen pals but also to the future generations who may read these letters. I try to take the time to describe things rather than just mention them. I’ve been given the rare opportunity of getting to know “Mum and Dad” as my husband knew them and I am so pleased to have made their acquaintance.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Out of the Blue

Getting a letter in the mail is always a good thing, but when you get an unexpected letter in the mail, it's a great thing. Today I brought in a stack of what looked like adverts and circulars and wasn't optimistic that there was anything for me but then I found this.

It was from Singapore and I don't have a pen pal in Singapore so I was intrigued. The stamps on the envelope were fabulous and I had a good look at them before I opened the package. What I found inside, really made my day. I was so excited to see such things. Amongst this treasure trove of goodness I found a note tucked inside from the lovely Jessica.

Not only did Jessica send some stamps but she also included first day covers that were stunningly vivid and some tea that smells divine. I can't thank her enough for such thoughtfulness.

I've always liked sending surprises to people just because. I just like making someone's day and I guess on a selfish note it gives me a high too. When a letter or package turns up out of the blue for me, I'm so thankful. It really is nice to know there are good-hearted people out there, sending joy to strangers. Receiving this packet from Jessica was such a wonderful surprise and now I am thinking about what to send her so she will feel as loved as I did when I opened her letter.

If you don't already know about it, go have a look on and tap into the art of unexpected goodness. It's a wonderful community of like-minded people who send all sorts of things to others around the globe. I've made some nice friends there and I know you will too.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Some Things Never Change

What comes to mind when you think about the Egyptians? Pyramids, Pharaohs, The Sphinx? The Egyptians have left behind quite a remarkable piece of their culture in their temples and tombs as well as their beautiful hieroglyph writing. Normally the focus is on the the burial chambers of the kings and queens, the riches, the splendour of their final resting place and the the elaborate measures that went into preparing them for the long journey to the next phase of life.

I'm always interested when I see a news item on Egypt. When another discovery or perhaps a new theory is put into the public I read it and wonder about Ancient Egypt and what it was really like. What kind of daily life did they have? Were their lives filled with mundane tasks like ours i.e. going to work and taking care of their families, or was it a different kind of existence. A lot of the hieroglyphs tell stories of great lives and battles but you don't ordinarily get to see what the "everyday" people were like. Amid the bronzed men and ornately clad women, there were people who went through life much like you and me.

At the Bodleian Library in Oxford, there is a small unassuming papyrus fragment from the second or third century, badly tattered by time, that tells a little tale of ordinary life. It's a letter, and I love that this letter still exists. Monuments and temples tell of greatness, but letters tell of life. This little piece of history is a letter from a boy to his father. It's a small missive but it speaks volumes in terms of giving you an idea of how similar life back then was to life today and I think it's such a telling letter because it shows emotion as well as familiarity. Compare it to the letter Mrs. Duffy had on her blog Letter Matters recently and they could have been written within days of one another.

Here is a transcription of Theon's letter to his father:

Theon to his father Theon, greetings. A nice thing to do, not taking me with you to the city. If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria, I shall not write you a letter or speak to you or wish you good health. So: if you go to Alexandria I shall not take your hand or greet you ever again. If you refuse to take me, this is what happens. And my mother said to Archelaos, “He’s upsetting me, take him away!” A nice thing to do, sending me these grand presents, a hill of beans. They put us off the track that day, the 12th, when you sailed. Well then, send for me, I beg you. If you don’t send for me, I shan’t eat, I shan’t drink. There! I pray for your health. [Address] Deliver to Theon from Theonas his son.
[Source: P. Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, London, 2007, p. 129]

What a brilliant find. Letters are still such a powerful element in our lives after all this time.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

National Stamp Collecting Month

Today marks the start of National Stamp Collecting month for all you philatelists out there. I've been a stamp admirer all my life thanks to my dad who always had the dining room table filled with stamps he was soaking off. I think it was only natural for me to get into the hobby as a result. I still have my first “grown up” stamp album and I still use it too. It's about 6 inches thick and I'll probably never fill it, but there is something very relaxing about sorting and affixing stamps to the pages. Of course, I have a few (quite a few!) other albums and stock books now and my collection grows day by day thanks to the friendly swappers over on Swap-Bot.   I'm not alone in my stamp hobby, the Queen has a stamp collection she inherited from her father, FDR made time every day to look at his stamps and even Hercule Poirot is a philatelist, so I am among distinguished friends.

I know stamp collecting is not everyone's cup of tea, but you can't help but admire this stamp from Belgium. It's a Weather Bureau stamp and is sensitive to warmth, sort of like a mood ring. At first glance, you see a scene with a tree, but once the stamp is exposed to the sun (or your hand if you're impatient like me) little sun and clouds appear. I really like this stamp, and it's not the first stamp Belgium has come out with that is innovative. Just a short time ago they had chocolate stamps. Belgium is known for its fine chocolates and their stamps are testament to that. I didn't manage to get the stamps as they were a limited edition and sold out quickly as you would expect when chocolate is involved, but the lovely Lien whom I did an ephemera swap with recently sent me the selvage from her set of stamps. It really does smell and taste like chocolate. I don't know how they managed that but it is truly a unique set of stamps.

Belgium is making the hobby of stamp collecting fun again with their unusual stamps. Chocolate, temperature sensitive and even glow in the dark stamps. C'mon, you know you want to collect them.