Silent Past

I never knew either of my grandmothers. Both died when my parents were young. My mom remembered just snatches about hers, a sunshine yellow dress, a dance together in the hallway, her mother patting her to sleep at night. We have photos of that laughing, vibrant young woman named Selma, but not a single letter to hear her voice. Not one.

In their absence, in place of the bubbling words she might have written, I offer a pictorial tribute to my grandmother Selma and her BFF Myra, along with the suggestion that you drop a letter in the mail to one of your good friends. Because our voices are important.

Middle school

Selma Myra
Myra & Mom Selma and Mom

 Myra & Selma

Will Strangers Mail My Letters?

letterWhile I didn’t throw the envelopes out my window Wodehouse-style, I have left a handful of letters around town to see if Californians will pass the so-called honesty test.

As I posted at the beginning of this month, English author P.G. Wodehouse famously claimed that he tossed mail from his window, confident that passersby would drop the letters in the postbox. The story might not be true, but that hasn’t stopped the British from testing the theory with mail left lying around villages and cities. Depending on the locale, 50-85% of those letters made it to their destinations. I had to wonder how well Americans would do.

letter 2I wrote five letters on tropical-themed stationery I found at home (definitely pre-texting, possibly pre- email!). I chose not to tempt strangers with notecards in case they imagined money tucked inside.

Of course, five letters is a small number for a test, but knowing the handwritten pages might vanish without a trace dampened my enthusiasm for writing more.

Parking lotThe letters are now out there, “lost” in a parking garage, hotel lobby, Chinese take-out restaurant, library and supermarket. I felt like a spy making a drop every time I left one. Will someone wonder why I am tucking this behind me on a chair? Did anyone see the envelope fall to the floor? I always walked away expecting someone to call after me, “Ma’am, you forgot something!”

I’m excited to see what happens. Come on California, mail those letters! I’ll let you know the final score in a few weeks.

Outside the Envelope

Story on a stampWhen mailing stories to our friends, most of us seal the words inside the envelope (though I have been known to write on the flap when a last minute thought could NOT wait until the next letter). But if you lived in Ireland last year, you could have mailed an entire 224 word story in the stamp alone.

Commissioned by the Irish Post to commemorate Dublin’s permanent title as a UNESCO City of Literature, the new stamp was based on the winning tale from a writing competition for primary and secondary school students. Eoin Moore embodied the contest’s “essence of Dublin” theme in his paean to all the lives that have helped forge the city, concluding with:

All of us who travel those arteries step on the words, actions, and lives of those who travelled them before us. The city embodies the people, and the people embody the city.”

I love that image of my stepping on the words of those that have gone before and of my leaving new paths of metaphors and similes for others to follow in the future.

Read more about the contest here.

Film Friday: The Harvey Girls

Harvey_Girls_posterDon’t you love how MGM’s theater poster for The Harvey Girls did not even pretend to make Judy Garland look like she did in most of the film — cute, perky and dressed in a 19th century waitressing uniform? Just as the film studio dressed up the wild west and the Harvey girls themselves, they presented their box office star at her most glamorous.

It doesn’t matter. I’ve loved this movie since I was a little girl, watching it whenever it came on TV, not because it’s great, but because it’s fun. Judy laughs delightfully; Angela Lansbury is a dream as saloon girl Em; and the musical spectacle of “On the Atchison, Topeka And the Santa Fe” is an absolute knock-out.

Harvey Girls JudyThe basic plot has Susan Bradley (Judy) traveling west to Sandrock to marry the man who wrote her beautiful letters. Her fellow passengers are waitresses en route to establish a new Harvey House restaurant (civilization through steak and a cup of coffee). Susan shares their sandwiches and her letters, telling about the matrimonial ad she answered and reading one of the passages that inspired her to get on the train: “There is a dream here in this great land that not everybody sees: mountains in sunlight and the cleanest wind in the world waiting for a man and a woman with a little vision.”

Alas, her prospective bridegroom is an old ranch hand who didn’t even write the letters himself and begs Susan NOT to marry him.

Harvey Girls screenshot“Do you mean I’ve come 2000 miles for a joke?!?” Susan demands indignantly. The true author of the letters, saloon owner Ned Trent (John Hodiak), tries to send her home with a wad of cash. But after calling him “a yellow dog,” our plucky heroine marches over to the Harvey house, dragging her trunk behind her, and becomes one of the new waitresses.

Fun, frivolous, and full of bouncy numbers sung by Judy and gang, and danced by Ray Bolger and a young Cyd Charisse, The Harvey Girls contains all the elements of MGM’s golden age of musicals. As well as a very different Angela Lansbury than we saw in later years in Murder, She Wrote.

Angela Lansbury Harvey Girls jpg
Harvey Girls realThe movie may be fiction, but the Harvey girls were real. Fred Harvey created America’s first restaurant chain when he established Harvey House lunch rooms, restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops along several railroad routes into the west, including the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. His descendants managed the chain until 1965. A few remaining facilities, such as El Tovar at the Grand Canyon, are still in operation under different management.

Film Friday: Do you give The Harvey Girls your stamp of approval? 

Visit Film Friday’s Pinterest pinboard, Lights, Letters, Action!

Found Stationery

Letters on magazine pagesDo you ever wonder who buys all of the beautiful boxes of stationery in card shops? Someone must be writing letters on it, but few are sent my way. Still, even when letter-writing was a common pastime, I didn’t always use “store-bought” stationery or postal aerogrammes.

I gathered sheets of letterhead from hotel and motel rooms to use long after I had moved on somewhere new. Disposable paper place mats in restaurants offered large writing surfaces and a way to pass the time until the server brought my meal. I wrote on notebook paper at school, striped computer paper when the old printers at work spit out blank pages between data, and even the occasional paper bag.

Therefore, I am proud to see my daughter carrying on the family tradition, writing long letters to friends on illustrations ripped from magazines. Not only does she write actual letters in our post-snail mail era, but she creates recycled works of art.

Ladies with Letters: How Shall I Reply?

Sir Luke FildesThe tip of a quill pen pressed against her lower lip, this brown-eyed girl muses, “How shall I reply?” to the letter she holds in her hand. Her own stationery rests on a green leather blotter on the writing desk. A silver pot holds either ink (but no stopper) or sand for blotting.

Perhaps the young woman sits at a table rather than a desk. Knowing my own desk clutter, it’s hard to believe that highly polished surface is kept clear at all times of everything but one blotter and a silver pot!

Of course, quill pens were no longer the writing instrument of choice by the latter half of the 19th century when Sir Samuel Luke Fildes painted this charming portrait. Pens with metal tips had been mass produced for decades. However, the soft tip of a feather pressed against her lip evokes a very different mood than a wood and metal pen. Everything about her is soft, from the tendrils of hair curling at her forehead to the wispy, lace-edged scarf tucked around her bodice. Her dreamy reverie is the personification of innocence and perhaps young love.

Fildes, a British artist, was born in 1843 — the beginning of the Victorian age. Strongly influenced by the social realist movement as a young man, he joined the staff of The Graphic, a social reform weekly dedicated to the idea that visual images could help alter public opinion. In other words, if people saw the plight of the downtrodden, they might be more willing to support charities that helped them.

The 26-year-old Fildes provided black and white illustrations of London’s poor. His drawing of people lined up to spend the night in a shelter inspired Charles Dickens to commission Fildes to illustrate his final (unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Edward_VII_in_coronation_robesFildes left The Graphic after a year to work on his oil painting full time. In stark contrast with his dark depictions of London’s slums, he turned his attention to romanticized scenes of life in Venice, joining a group of artists loosely referred to as the Neo-Venetian school. Fildes also painted numerous portraits, including the young woman with a pen.

Edward VII knighted Fildes in 1906. Was it because the king really liked the artist’s well-known portrait of him in full coronation robes? Always flatter the monarch.

For your own writing needs, you can find Fildes’ charming painting — as well as other Ladies with Letters images — on cards and other products at the Post Whistle Shop on Zazzle. 

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.

Film Friday: Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis

Bienvenue_chez_les_CH'TISBienvenue Chez les Ch’tis, or Welcome to the Sticks, is a wonderful French comedy about a post office manager who is transferred to the country’s far north — a punishment levied for his pretending to have a disability to secure a sought-after posting to the Riviera.

“I’ll call you when I get to…[long pause] the North region,” says Philippe Abrams to wife Julie. He had sought the Mediterranean promotion to please her. Julie was already tired of their home in sunny Provence, so nothing will induce her to move to Bergues in the cold and rainy north.

Sure enough, the instant his car passes the sign “Welcome to the North,” it begins to pour. His first impressions of Bergues and its oddball inhabitants confirm Philippe’s worst fears, but first impressions prove misleading.

Bienvenue footballMuch to Philippe’s surprise, he begins to fit in and enjoy himself, learning the local dialect of ch’ti (everyone seems to lisp), eating lunch at the fry shack and cheering the regional team at football matches. Yet, when he tries to tell Julie that life in Bergues is good, she accuses him of putting on a brave face and begs him to tell her the “truth.”

Philippe loves this new found sympathy and begins to tell his wife what she expects to hear, embellishing freely about life in the terrible north. So what will he and his friends in Bergues do when Julie decides to visit?

Bienvenue drunkEven though I am sure that I missed many funny nuances, I laughed out loud at Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis. It’s worth watching just to see Philippe and his colleague Antoine bicycle drunkenly through town because every friendly citizen invites them inside for one little drink when they knock on doors to deliver mail.

A runaway hit in France, Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis stars versatile actors Kad Merad and Dany Boon. Boon, who grew up in the northern region of France and can speak ch’ti, also directed and co-wrote the film.

Film Friday: Do you give Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis your stamp of approval? 

Visit Film Friday’s Pinterest pinboard, Lights, Letters, Action!

Bienvenue Bergues

Mysterious Wee Envelope

July 15, 1847 envelope July 15, 1847 envelope back

Before eBay was born, I occasionally bid by fax for assorted lots in long distance auctions. I don’t remember what I was trying to purchase, but in one grab bag of ephemera, I received this tiny envelope with elegant blue piping and a curved flap. Postmarked on July 15, 1847 in Bristol, it’s a testament to Victorian England’s postmen, who delivered it to Swansea the following day (exactly 167 years ago today).

Sent to Mr. John Morris on Gower Street, the envelope had long since lost whatever letter it contained. The seal on the back was also missing, as was the stamp. Or so I thought at first glance.

Penny BlackOn closer inspection, I saw that someone had penned the word “Paid” in the upper right corner where one usually affixed a stamp. This puzzles me. England introduced the world’s first postage stamp, the famous Penny Black, in 1840. Realizing that black was not the best color for a stamp  — how would you see the cancellation marks?  —  the post office switched to brick red stamps the following year. So the mystery is, if postage stamps had been used for the last seven years, why was the envelope simply inscribed Paid?

Sorry, I’m not going to answer that question because I simply don’t know, but if any reader does, I would appreciate a comment.

tiny envelopeThe other thing that strikes me is the envelope’s size, approximately that of a modern day business card. My wee envelope seems better scaled to an invitation to a doll’s tea party than to a letter mailed to Mr. Morris. Were many envelopes that small in the past? Note the size compared to modern day stamps.

Actually, the envelope is just the right size for my cat. And now that I think about it, Morris was the name of the ginger cat that starred in all those 9 Lives TV commercials…

tiny envelope with cat

Dad’s 1938 Packard

PackardDad loved cars — big cars, classic cars, and in particular, the 1938 Packard he owned for three glorious years. That Packard was the vehicle against which all other cars in Dad’s life were measured and fell short, and that’s saying something since he owned 46 of them over his lifetime!

Packard ReceiptGrowing up, I heard many stories about the Packard: how Dad purchased it in 1947 for $785 (he kept the original receipt and laminated it years later); how it had been painted a dull gray during the war years; how the leather upholstery and wooden windshield frame were rotted from rain damage; and how Dad restored it piece by piece to create his dream machine.

The Packard was a fixture of Dad’s past, but it’s hard to connect with a story lifted from the dusty shelf of memory. That’s why I loved discovering among my parents’ papers a 1948 letter to Dad from his cousin Majlis where she talked about his work on the car. Her comments written in what was then the “here-and-now” added a new dimension, a sense of immediacy, to the family’s Packard legend. I could picture Dad sending snapshots of his pride and joy, and Majlis sharing the photos with her husband and young son, David, who in turn showed them to everyone else, saying “That’s my Uncle Gunnar’s car.”

Packard convertible“I fell in love with the swatch of material you sent showing how you upholstered it. I said to Stan I was tempted to ask if you had any small leftovers for the front of a jacket for David but he discouraged me saying you probably needed anything left over for patches.”

Dad sewed the new upholstery himself, cutting, piecing and stitching the seat covers after hours in the tailoring department of Todd’s Clothiers in Pasadena, where he worked as an assistant manager. He told me that he purchased an expensive wool plaid fabric because he liked the look of Chrysler’s Highlander cars.

Initials on PackardDad had also written to my mom, Carlyn, about his work on the car, but he had not yet confided to his cousin that the Packard wasn’t his “one and only true love.” That title belonged to a young woman he had met back east the year before.

Dad spent months restoring the car. He had the shiny bits rechromed to make them sparkle, repaired the convertible top, worked on the engine and, finally, had his initials painted on the doors in swirling Old English script.

Packard and momDespite all of the work, when Dad drove his 12-cylinder beauty back to Baltimore to marry Mom, engine trouble required him to feed it two quarts of oil every 100 miles.

Dad called the Packard their honeymoon carriage, but Mom said she only appeared in photos if she stood next to the car.

My parents’ love affair lasted all their lives, but Dad was forced to break up with his Packard when he discovered a crack in the engine block. He couldn’t afford to repair it and instead sold the car to make the down payment on a tract home, purchased with a GI loan. But between Dad’s tales and Majlis’ letter, at least I’ve had the chance to go “along for the ride.”

Majlis letter 1029 Majlis letter envelope032

Ladies with Letters: Message in a Bottle

Sir John Everett Millais-message-in-a-bottleI’ve been a beachcomber since I was a little girl, walking the tideline to pick up shells and wave-polished glass. I’ve braided strands of sea grass into bracelets, thrown living starfish back into the ocean and gathered sand dollars by moonlight. However, one ocean treasure that has eluded me is a message in a bottle.

Sir John Everett Millais painted “Message from the Sea” in 1884 when he was 55 years old.  A founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Millais had been the youngest student ever (at age 11) to enter the Royal Academy Schools. By the latter half of the 19th century, he was one of the wealthiest and most successful artists of his day.

The barefoot girl is obviously from a working class family, from her inexpensive, rumpled clothing to the basket strapped to her back for gathering seaweed or shellfish. Her lace edged cap reminds me of traditional Breton dress. Millais’ family lived in Brittany, France for a few years during his childhood, so perhaps he modeled her on the children he remembered from that region.

Did she find the bottle at low tide and break it open on the stone block where she is sitting? Perhaps the remains of a disused breakwater or pier, her seaweed-covered perch must be submerged for much of the day. Who threw the bottle off a ship, a fisherman, sailor or trader sending one last letter “home” before steaming away for distant ports? Or is it from young lovers sharing their passion with the world? Whoever the author, the language is French if a young Breton girl can read it.

Even today when we can connect with strangers on the internet and text our friends and family from every corner of the Earth, the idea of letting chance and the waves carry a handwritten message to someone unknown holds a powerful allure.

If you’d like to share this image with friends by more traditional mailing methods, cards featuring the painting — and other Ladies with Letters images — are available in the Post Whistle store on Zazzle.

Visit the Ladies with Letters pin board on Pinterest.