When I was 21, I relocated thousands of miles and one hemisphere away to Australia. As soon as I learned where I would teach for the next two years, I sent my parents the school address so that they could write to me, even before I found a flat of my own. Of course, by “they” I mean my mother, who dutifully began her first aerogramme as soon as she knew where to send it.
All old letters are time capsules, but this one is especially poignant. It captures a turning point between my childhood, with Mom talking about life at the house where I grew up, and my transition into adulthood. Not only was I making my own living, but I also had traveled to the other side of the world.
Everything around me was new, from the accents to the food to the Southern Cross in the night sky. My students ordered meat pies and pasties for lunch, cars drove on the “wrong” side of the road, and even the meanings of words changed so that a sweater was called a jumper and jumpers were called tunics.
My mother’s letter to this looking glass world carried the reassurance of everyday news from home: mowing the overgrown lawn, “Dad and I finally manicured that wheat field around the house…”; buying her first pair of cowboy boots; and the vivid fuchsia of the bougainvillea spilling over our wall.
However, Mom also told me about meeting Sam Spade’s doppelganger at the department store where she managed the cosmetics counter: “I waited on a man who was a dead ringer for Humphrey Bogart, looks, voice, speech, and even stoop-shouldered a little. I told him this and he said he didn’t ever admit this to anyone but that in the 1950s when Bogey was so ill a friend of his got him a job as a stand-in. He worked in The Caine Mutiny, The African Queen, and another one with him.”
Strangely, I didn’t remember that anecdote about Bogart’s stand-in, so reading it decades later was like hearing something new from my mother, who has been gone almost three years now. That’s the magic of snail mail — Mom can still share one more story.