Oh yes, wait a minute Mister Postman
Wait Mister Postman
Please Mister Postman, look and see
Is there a letter in your bag for me? -Please Mr. Postman, The Marvelettes
I took the tram to my daughter’s school a few weeks ago as my bike was being serviced. On the way back I was very taken by a young woman’s bag. It read Postes Pays Bas on it. And, boom, I was back in France where my family lived before moving to the Netherlands. Pays Bas is the French word for The Netherlands meaning the lowlands. A quick Google search revealed that there are now vintage bags being made from Dutch post bags which are now out of use. I learnt too that The Netherlands has one of the most efficient postal services in Europe.
It is buzzing industry as it is everywhere in the world with letters, parcels and packages. Not a day goes by without the postman leaving me something redirected from our old abode in Picardie, a bill, something for the neighbour to collect later or, curiously, a piece of correspondence for someone who doesn’t live here any more. There have been multiple occupants in this red brick 1930s house which was also the era our house in France was built. I know that when we leave my name will also pop through the letter slot. The owners of the house are Dutch expatriates who have been abroad for ages.
‘They are in Morocco,’ the estate agent stressed when I first viewed the property.
‘No, it’s Turkey,” her assistant corrected
The estate agent shrugged. Same difference. Flight time between the two countries is 8 hours but never mind.
“No, they’re both wrong. They live in Qatar,” my elderly neighbour told me. She had come over to inform me that she was tired of trying to contact them. She wanted to cut back a tree which was blocking light into her living room. I had no issue and my daughter and I watched as the tree surgeons got to work.
“Stop!” my daughter shouted at them. “Not nice for tree in the sky,”
Six months later and the tree is already sprouting tiny shoots which will turn into branches one day.
One thing I never get these days are actual handwritten letters themselves. Before email and the advance of social media I used to get them all the time. The last time I got one was in my early 20s when I was living in Indonesia. But even then, I remember responding to them with my Yahoo account. And that was it, the letter was long lost. I have bunches of them archived in my study and my daughter is dying to get her hands on them. One day she was successful and I took it off her.
“But why Mummy? I want to see! What is it?”
So we sat down together and I showed her some. I saw all my phantom international addresses. I would pride myself on knowing them off by heart and phone numbers. I can’t do that today. What had I written to everyone? I remember being nervous about what exactly to put pen to paper. What do I disclose? Will they understand? Will they write back? Ruth E. Van Reken first journaling was called Letters I Never Wrote, later published as Letters Never Sent.
“I do it,” my daughter told me running to find a pencil. I happily notice that she was holding it remarkably well. I don’t. I hold a pencil or pen very badly. It was never corrected and my wrist and fingers ache when I’ve written for a long time. I also dislike my handwriting. I tried to explain what a letter was to her.
“It’s a way to communicate,” I tell her
How do we communicate? There are of course so many ways and it’s only been the past few years that I’ve found writing to be one of the best ones. There are no interruptions, no policemen and it is immortalized. Today it can be dispatched to the world wide web. But I also start to realise that it’s not just about communication, it’s also about connection. This I see as my daughter scrawls a capital E for her first name. Children are taught to write by hand for that very reason. The hum of connection. The thing about it is that it also needs a port, somewhere to anchor otherwise it can’t be what it is. It hurts when it breaks and nothing goes forward when it doesn’t function.
There was a beautiful essay published on Denizen called To Return about the experience of repatriation after living and working abroad. I repatriated to England at 17 years of age but repatriation is a hollow word for it. I wasn’t returning anywhere. By the time I went to Surrey to finish my education I’d spent 18 weeks in total visiting the United Kingdom. United Nations home leave was 2 weeks every 2 years. Where I returned was to the front door of a French house in Bois Chatton, the classrooms of an international school in Geneva, the suburban sprawls of McLean, the congested hills of Ankara, the attic in Genolier, the prefabricated house of Cessy and so on. It’s okay to go there. I don’t really have any other choice. And I understand that where I am as an adult is not reflected in the child and vice versa. But that river network, those tangle of roots or urban telephone wires I can travel up and down or across. I can tow myself in.
“Why we don’t have roots Mummy?” My daughter asked me.
We had just finished reading The Enormous Turnip.
“Plants have them. We have them too but you can’t see them,”
“Where are they?”
“Here,” I point to my temple. “And here,”
She touches my heart.
“Our roots are who we look like, where we are or were, how we talk, why we think a certain way and most important…what we do.”
The way the writer of To Return ends her piece resonated:
But my forever state cannot be running away, or wishing away, or whiling my thoughts away from here. And the “away” is slowly turning into a “here.”
I am not there yet. But I look forward to the day when I can let the tree that is me grow for good. And I think I’ll go and hunt down one of those Dutch bags.