It’s difficult to explain to someone who was born in a year beginning with ‘2’ just how people used to communicate with one another. Before Twitter, e-mail, SMSs, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Facebook, if you wanted to tell someone more than five metres away from you something, you had to either physically get up out of your chair and go over to them, pick up a telephone to call, or you had to write them an actual note.
And if you were sent away to school, you waited patiently for the weekly mail to arrive in the post from home with the latest news of family friends, neighbours and other gossip.
My letters from home were invariably written by my mother detailing everything from the maid stealing toilet paper to her ongoing feud with her sisters over something one of them might have said thirty years ago at a party nobody now remembered ever attending. And at the end, there’d be a little paragraph from my father telling me to study hard, that all was well at home, and that I should let him know if I needed anything.
In turn, every week, we’d all write home with news of exams, friends we’d made, sporting triumphs and disasters, with the occasional hints that we might need more pocket money, the last bit invariably ignored in the reply letter the following week.
Nobody would have dreamt of actually telephoning because you only did that if something horrible had happened. Like the time I got a call in the middle of the night from my mother weeping that she’d gone skiing with my father and the diamond in her wedding ring had fallen out.
“Oh my God, I thought one of you had died!” I shouted.
“Choy!” Mother sniffled, so distraught over the loss of her Cartier diamond that she decided to overlook my rude tone.
And the thing about letters is that they were so permanent. My parents kept all the letters their parents had written them over the years. And when my mother’s father died, a few years after his wife, we discovered among his possessions all the letters that Mother had written them.
We spent weeks putting the letters back into chronological order, one letter replying to another, from the first postcard Grandpa wrote to her from Paris to the last letter Grandma scribbled just before she died. Piles of letters, all neatly tied with a ribbon into bundles for each year. Letters, one after the other, down the years like a literal chain letter (which, again, all you kids born in a year beginning with ‘2’ will have no idea what I’m on about).
When it was all sorted, we had the letters bound into several leather volumes.
One evening, not long after, Mother disappeared into her room with the letters and didn’t emerge for two days. Father was banished to the guest room. Every so often, we’d put our ear to the door and listen. My sister Michelle reported she heard pages turning, but Jack and I, both suffering from a lifetime of tinnitus, couldn’t hear a thing.
When Mother finally reappeared, her eyes were red and puffy.
“I am exhausted!” she announced as she hugged each of us in turn. “And if you ever give me the same kind of trouble I gave my parents, I will just die!”
“Really?” Saffy later asked me over lunch. “She really said that?”
“Uh huh,” I said. “And she never let us read those letters either. They’re all locked away somewhere secret!”
Saffy looked wistful. “I wish I had that kind of relationship with my parents. We’ve never had a conversation!”
“That’s because you do all the talking!” Amanda pointed out as she speared a cucumber from her rojak.
Saffy’s formidable bosom inflated as she opened her mouth to protest, then let it deflate. “Yes, that’s probably true, too,” she conceded. “But you know what I mean. I don't have any correspondence like that with my parents. When they die, there’ll be no real record of our relationship. Not like Jason’s grandparents with his mother. How depressing. Say, is anyone going to finish this rojak?”
That evening, I dug out all the letters my parents have written me over the years. There are hundreds of them, all neatly bundled, one bundle for each year. A lifetime of confidences, hopes and daily news.
I pulled out the bundle for the year I first went away to school.
The first letter began: “My dear son…”
The memories came flooding back as I read late into the night. The next morning, I pulled out a piece of paper and, for the first time in years, wrote my parents a letter.