Up Front by Emma Hart

32

To the Letter

I still enjoy reading your mum's letters. Today's generation are going to miss out on having such personal reminders of their elders as the electronic age takes over. 

I have engaged in some wonderful email correspondence, full of passion and wit and replete with bullshit, but nobody is ever going to find those missives hidden in the bottom of a long-forgotten box. Which in the meantime is just as well, but one day I will be dead, and people will have to forgo the chance of admiring my soul spread out across the page the way I have my mother's this last week. 

Since Mum died, my cousin has occasionally been sending me old letters of my mother's, and our mutual grandmother's. They are just the kind of historical documents I love. They offer glimpses of lost stories, a few brush-strokes of a forgotten painting, They show us change so unself-consciously. Both my mother and grandmother refer to people by the titles my cousin would have used for them – so Nanna calls her daughter and son-in-law "Mum and Dad". It was obviously standard at the time, and now, creepy as fuck. 

One of the things I took from Mum's house was the box full of my letters from uni. I was only sorry that my box full of her letters had rotted in our garage while I wasn't looking. I lost the sad joy of piecing that correspondence back together in its entirety. As it is, I'm left with 'censored for parent' glimpses of my old life, and the memory of my mother complaining about one of my boyfriends on the grounds that, "The last thing this family needs is more genes for big noses." 

My cousin is right about how things have changed. It shows my age that, when my best friend moved to Auckland, we wrote each other letters. I haven't a clue what I said to her, but I retain her tales of mad flatmates and the seeming impossibility of Auckland public transport. That was back when, if we were feeling particularly extravagant, we'd phone each other, after ten when the rates were cheap. 

"Anyway, it seems that is all water under the bridge now, and that you are bringing enlightenment to the sons and daughters of the nobs of St Johns Hill. Hope you are living up to the tone of the suburb."

 There comes a point in our lives when we start to see our parents and grandparents as actual people, who have an existence independent from us. Their letters to their friends are as close as we can get to their unguarded conversations. I have a strong suspicion my mother's late-night chats with her best friends in the forties were an awful lot like mine in the nineties. 

My mother's letters are full of her voice, and scraps of the stories of her life I never knew. They cover her time at Teachers College in Dunedin – she lived at 375 Leith St in 1946, and it looks exactly the same today – and her extended working holiday in Australia to attend the Melbourne Olympics. One details the time she and I travelled from Wellington to Lyttleton on the last sailing of the Rangitira. Oddly, one of my earliest memories is looking down on Wellington Harbour at night and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I had a very well-developed aesthetic sense for a four year old. 

And one letter floored me. Ever since I first read it I've wondered what to do with it. It's so personal, but its significance is so much wider than that. I've thought hard about it, and the privacy implications of having the voices of the dead. I want to share it. We're coming up on the time of year which for me is infused with memories of her death, and I want to share her life. The electronic age gives me the ability to pass these words on, and they'll persist in your memories and Google's search results, at least for a while. (The other great thing about paper letters, of course, was that Google was unable to use my mother's private correspondence to sell her cigarettes, gardening tools and parental anxiety.) It was written in 1977, on the occasion of my mother's running away from home. 

I'll leave you with it, and a slight feeling of guilt: I owe my cousin a letter, and I've written this instead. 

I suppose you've heard that I've changed my status to that of solo mother, to the delight of most of my friends. We've been here for just a week and the place has been wonderful. 

Warwick [my brother, seventeen at the time] took a day off work and we made the move in the afternoon after I had finished work and were well clear of the place before his lordship arrived home. I think I covered my tracks pretty well and had lulled him into a false sense of security by planting things in the garden right up to the time we left. A few people know we are here now, but I don't think any of them are likely to tell him. Still I get a funny feeling when the door bell rings occasionally. 

The neighbourhood is good and the houses to either side of us have beautiful gardens – some consolation where there's nothing to look at in your own. 

Emma hasn't had to change her school but has quite a bit further to walk. Our furnishings are a bit spartan, but being without TV has made me much more familiar with radio. 

I have applied for a Housing Corporation loan, dragging in Nanna as one of my dependents, but don't know how it will go. I seem to spend my afternoons running from there to Social Welfare, to my lawyer, to the landlord's lawyer and back again. Consequently some of our boxes are still not unpacked. 

Warwick got a bit sick of stand-up lunches (always seemed to finish up with tomato sauce on his overalls) so on Friday night we went to town and bought a second-hand kitchen table, small enough to fit in the boot of the car, for $8. 

The sun is valiantly trying to get through and I must away to town and see about Nanna's phone bill and pay Emma's insurance. I'm told it may be a month before our phone is connected so that makes extra running about. 

Excuse brevity, 

Love, 

Audrey.

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