May Day! May Day! May Day!

College May day letterThough many aspects of college life have changed through the centuries, I suspect that writing home for money has always been a standard refrain. Such requests were so common in the Middle Ages that practice exercises in letter-writing techniques included formulaic appeals for funds. Supposedly, one parent said, “A student’s first song is a demand for money…there will never be a letter that doesn’t ask for cash.”

My own appeal began “MAY DAY! MAY DAY! MAY DAY!” All in caps. If I had emailed my plea today, the line would have been bold as well.

collegeI can’t believe I waited until my checking account had shrunk to a mere $1.50 before asking for help, and that I mailed — rather than phoned — the request. Yet, knowing how high long distance rates were back then, a letter was probably cheaper.

Despite the fact that one building on my school campus looked like a chateau, the university was more inexpensive than most. But I still ran over my budget as most college students do at one point or another.

SusanAnd even though none of my classes gave us examples of such appeals as did those of Medieval universities, I still guessed the right formula and asked for an advance rather than additional funds.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this old cry for help is recalling a time when my parents were still here and ready to ride to the rescue when paper goods, groceries and the cost of life got the better of their 19-year-old daughter.

Playing Postman

Playskool greenLong ago, in a time far, far away, the act of posting letters was so ubiquitous, Playskool made sorting toys shaped like mailboxes for toddlers. The first version, from the 40s and 50s, was green. Later incarnations were a patriotic red, white and blue. Both are far more cool than the plastic shape-sorting cube my daughter played with when she was young.

Playskool red

If I could travel back in time to the early 1950s, I could buy my own postal station sorting toy for just $3.00.

postal station ad

Lost and Found: 18th C Mail Bag

Irish letter sealAs I have frequently mentioned, I love stories of lost letters being found bricked up in an old fireplace or hidden in the back of a drawer. But imagine discovering the contents of an entire 18th century mailbag. That’s what historian Thomas Truxes unearthed in an uncatalogued box at the British National Archives.

During the Seven Years War, the British navy captured an Irish trading vessel named the Two Sisters of Dublin off the coast of France in 1757, sending the ship’s contents to London as “evidence.” That included a mail bag full of 125 letters, the majority written by Irish expatriates living in France.

No one had ever studied the letters taken from the mailbag. In fact, most of the letters still had intact wax seals. They had remained unopened and unread for 250 years.

Unlike many of the carefully preserved letters we find in archives, these weren’t the erudite constructions of the elite, who anticipated that their letters might be saved by the recipients. No one wrote these messages for posterity. Instead, the mailbag carried chitchat of everyday life from a cross section of society, housewives and teenagers, maids and parents, rich and poor, literate and not so much.

Irish letterMary Dennis wrote to her sea captain husband, “My Dr I beg you will not omit Riting as it is ye onely Pleasure I Can have in yr abstance I beg you may take care of your self & I beg of the Allmyty God to Preserve you from all Eavill…” [My dear, I beg you will not omit writing as it is the only pleasure I can have in your absence. I beg you take care of yourself and I beg of the all mighty god to preserve you from all evil]

But in the same letter she proved her practical nature, requesting that he bring back olives and pepper to sell at the shop because such wares fetched a good price during the embargo.

A father warned his apprentice son: “I learned that you are a great libertine and that you pay no attention to what Mr. Pearl tells you. Watch out what you do. I am writing to him that if you do not return to your duty to give you some good strokes of the rod.”

And a young maid, in almost unreadable run-on sentences, told her sister about fixing pancakes, complained about being stuck inside and gossiped over how much Mrs. Beab liked their Uncle Frank, asking him over for supper and dancing until midnight.

Read more great excerpts from the letters of an 18th century mailbag.

Summer Camp Blues

CampThe first time my daughter Kyla attended girl scout summer camp, I was one of the volunteer chaperones who rode up to the mountains with the campers. It was a two-hour bouncy ride on an old yellow school bus, and my daughter clung to my side like a limpet.

Still, as soon as we arrived, she quickly said goodbye and lined up with her new cabin mates. However, that eagerness to begin a new adventure did not translate to a cheerful postcard home after her first day at camp.

My kid, who had never expressed a jot of homesickness during previous campouts with her scout troop, suddenly missed me with exclamation points.

Camp 2And despite the fact that she:

  • (√) made new friends
  • (√) sang songs
  • (√) played games, and
  • (√) had lots of fun,

she definitely kept expectations firmly in check on her overall assessment of Camp Sherman.

Bypassing choices like “Is the best” or “Has lots to do,” Kyla wrote-in her own answer to describe the camp: “OK but I’ll tell you.”

My daughter even added a question mark after the pre-printed line “Well, I am off to have more fun,” just to let me know that she was reserving judgement. And then there’s her message on the card’s reverse…

Yet, for weeks after she returned home, Kyla regaled me with tales of cool counselors and the little frogs by the lake, and sang all the funny new songs that she had learned.

Maybe one’s first week at summer camp is an experience best enjoyed in retrospect. Does anyone have their own fond — or foul — memories of camp?

Film Friday: Writing Better Social Letters

Social Letter 1Ever stumped about what to say in a letter? Well, wonder no more! Just watch the 10-minute educational film, Writing Better Social Letters. Even though it was made in 1950, the short tried to avoid a common gender stereotype by making the girl the clueless correspondent and her brother the writing whiz.

“Are you through already?”

“Sure Sis, I just finished the letter to Aunt Helen and Uncle Ross.”

“I don’t know how you do it, Wally. You make it seem so easy…How do you write such good social letters?”

“Well, Nora, it’s a talent…”

Social Letter 2Once you get past the surreal world of Wally and Nora, it’s interesting to see how the basic tenets of letter writing used to be systematically outlined and enumerated like those of any other skill. Kids of today, many of whom have never corresponded by mail, might actually find some of the advice useful — once they finish rolling on the floor with laughter.

Film Friday: Watch Writing Better Social Letters online.

Social Letter 3

Absolutely Incredible Kids Day

Letter WriterHave you heard of Absolutely Incredible Kids Day (AIKD)?

Every year on the third Thursday in March (that would be this coming Thursday, March 19), adults are urged to join a national letter-writing campaign organized by Camp Fire USA to send kids letters of support, love and encouragement.

While the organization began their AIKD campaign in 1997, I only discovered its existence today. And what a wonderful idea it is, to not only encourage people to write letters, but to send them to children who seldom receive mail and may never have been sent an actual letter.

Camp Fire posts tips on their website about composing letters geared to children and even offers a few sample sentences that may help get the writing ball rolling.

So write and tell a kid you know just how incredible he/she is. It absolutely will make a difference.

All Aboard the Mail Trolley

Mail TrolleyI’ve seen photos of postal vans, wagons and carts; mail coaches, mail trains and one or two mail planes; letter carrier bicycles and wheeled pouches; and even mail boats — but this is the first time that I’ve seen a United States Mail Trolley.

Maybe we need to revise the trolley song from Meet Me in St. Louis: “Clang, clang, clang went the mailman…”

Harvard Square, Cambridge, circa 1900.

Happy Birthday to Me

Bday 2I saved up my birthday card haul for a delicious mailfest, an entire stack of envelopes to rip open one after another. While all the cards were great, the best laugh came from the fact that Susan and Denise, two friends I’ve known since fifth grade, sent me cards with the same message about getting ID’d.

Bday 3The inside sentiments — May all your birthday wishes come true — were IDENTICAL, except for one card labeling them “wildest” birthday wishes. Considering how long it’s been since anyone asked for my ID, such wishes would be wild indeed. (A blast from the past photo of the three of us at Denise’s birthday.)

Penguin  3I also gave myself a present this year, signing up my daughter and me for a behind-the-scenes encounter with magellanic penguins at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

For a penguin lover, that was even better than being ID’d. The birds were friendly, curious and enthralled by reflected specks of light bouncing off cameras and cell phones. And I have to tell you that they have soft tummies, sharp-edged wings and will nip if you pet their back feathers.

All in all, a wonderful birthday. A big thank you to all those who helped fill my mailbox.

Bday 1

Film Friday: Beaches

BeachesGive me a moment to wipe my eyes before we start the review… Somehow I missed Beaches when it hit the theaters and only watched it for the first time today.

The penultimate chick flick, Beaches is the story of how two girls from different walks of life, growing up on different coasts, forge a lifelong friendship through letters.

Barbara Hershey (Hillary Whitney) and the wonderful Bette Midler (C.C. Bloom) play the adult friends, while Mayim Bialik — a hoot on The Big Bang Theory — bears an uncanny resemblance to Midler as the young C.C.

Beaches #3Hillary and C.C. meet on the beach in Atlantic City in the 1950s and return to their separate lives after just one afternoon together. But the girls write letter after letter through the years. In fact, this film was made in 1988, one of the last years that people still kept in touch through mail, before the advent of email, cell phones and social media.

Beaches #2“Dear C.C., We’re spending the summer at our beach house. It’s very peaceful here. I get to ride horses and think a lot. I miss you.”

[To Hillary] “Ride? All I ride is the subway. Leona won’t pay for me to go to Julliard so I have to keep taking dancing and singing from Mrs. Jean Caton, the Freaky Fred Broadway star…I got to sing at my father’s dry cleaning convention…”

Beaches #4They grow up, C.C. trying to jumpstart her singing career in New York while Hillary studies law at Stanford. C.C. addresses letters to her as “Dear WASP Queen,” while Hillary writes of joining protest rallies and being called a “radical” by her father.

Their lives intertwine for a brief spate sharing a rundown apartment in New York before spinning off into different directions once again.

Beaches #5They fall in love with the wrong men, fight, stop writing to one another, and then reconnect. Midler sings, the beach scenes are beautiful, and…well…watch with tissues handy.

Whatever new friends we make in life, our oldest friends fill a special niche. “Listen, I know everything there is to know about you and my memory is long, my memory is very long,” C.C. says to Hillary. And should she ever forget, the letters are there to remind her.

Beaches #6

Film Friday: Do you give Beaches your stamp of approval?

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

Lost and Found: At an Estate Sale

Kenney 2I used to visit a lot of yard and estate sales. Most of the time, I just browsed through someone else’s bric-a-brac, searching for pieces that were a good fit for me. But sometimes I ran across old photos or postcards, and was saddened that someone’s memories were selling for a quarter or two.

So I love this story with a happy ending for a family memory.

Jim Kenney wrote to his sweetheart Mary from onboard the U.S.S. Arogonne on November 7, 1942. Three years later they eloped, and were married for 64 years.

Kenney 3

Kenney 1Somehow the letter ended up at an estate sale in Missouri, and an anonymous buyer sent it to Jim Kenney’s grandson in Pennsylvania with a post-it note: “Hello, found this in an estate I purchased and thought you might want it back.”

Jim passed away just a year ago, and his obituary listed the family business to which the letter was addressed. For Jim’s son and grandson, it’s an amazing gift from the past.

Watch their story on the news here (note that the embedded link does not show up with all versions of the Safari browser):