By Diane Selkirk
Web Exclusive, June 5, 2006
“I asked the universe for you.
When your daddy and I decided we wanted to have a baby, I spent many hours imagining you. I asked for someone who wanted to join our lives: A child with a sense of adventure, an easygoing personality, a love of learning and change, someone who would live life joyfully. This seemed a lot to ask for, but I also really wanted a girl with curly red hair. So I asked for that too.”
Each year on Maia’s birthday I fill a page with words for her; small pictures of who she is, descriptions of what we’ve experienced together, my hopes and dreams for her, and my worries. Sometimes the words come quickly, and I fill the paper with fixed images of my quickly changing daughter. Other years I need to sit a while, catch my breath and try to recall the sound of her emerging voice.
The letters are a promise and commitment—to both of us. While I write them I often imagine Maia as a young woman, a box of letters on her lap, a soft light falling on her. The scene is unhurried as she reads each letter slowly, studying each word. She searches them, looking for images that connect her back to her earlier self.
In an era of rapidly composed emails and family dinners sandwiched between activities (when dinner happens at all), writing Maia gives me a chance to connect with what it means to be a mother. Too often, our days of parenting slip by without acknowledgement and we trust our memories to cameras, scrapbooks and recorders. When I write my memories on paper, I capture more than just an image; I capture the shape and texture of my love for a little girl with curly red hair.
“I could list each of your accomplishments and transitions but I think the most wonderful part of your second year was watching your personality develop. You are a lovely, loving ‘little kid’ (as you call yourself) and are always aware of what is happening around you. If someone is sad or crying you want to ‘hug them, hold them, make them feel better’, if they are laughing or singing you are eager to laugh with them and join them in song.”
We are told that letter writing, as an art, is slipping away from us. It is seen as inefficient and impractical. Opening the mailbox to find a small envelope with familiar handwriting (the kind that brings a surge of expectation, and the desire to curl up and share a moment with the author) is an experience that is nearly forgotten. Instead, we send out emails with recycled platitudes about family and friendship and we feel guilt that we don’t take the time to say more. But there is more to say to each other than “forward this to ten people you really love.” Many of us have simply forgotten where to begin.
When we don’t know how to write each other, how do we write our children? Where do we even start if we promised ourselves to write every year and now, suddenly our one-year-old is seven, and the lovely box we made to contain our annual letters has only one letter in it? And how do we take the rich experience of loving someone and reduce it to a few phrases?
“You have grown so big. I promise I will try to make each day special by fiercely protecting the magic that belongs to childhood. I will try to help you grow at the pace you want to—even though it feels much too quick to me. But when you nurse to sleep in my arms each night and the bigness you have grown into during the day is able to recede, I will hold that brief glimpse of your tiny baby self close to me.”
In her book Etiquette (1922) Emily Post lamented to her readers that letter writing was falling out of fashion “The art of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a post-card.”
Perhaps letter writing has never really been threatened, maybe it is simply an art that waits quietly, there for each of us to discover. I think we avoid letter writing because we are not sure of the rules. It seems a bit old-fashioned and archaic and something that might be very easy to do wrong. And it often seems that other people can capture our feelings much more clearly and easily than we ever could ourselves. Why commit our own unsure words to paper when there are cards and poems that say what we mean so beautifully.
But words are like any other type of art. There is no wrong way to tell our children we love them, if it comes from inside us. And it is never too late for a letter. A promise of a yearly letter is not one that needs to be abandoned when one, two, three letters are forgotten. Carefully chosen words are gifts—both to our children but also to ourselves. When I give myself permission to sit down and let the words spill out, without judgement, without censor; I am letting my heart open and I’m telling myself that everything I feel has value.
I have a letter my Nana wrote me before she died. I probably had others from her over the years, but this one was the final one. It tells of her hospital room, the flowers in her vase, the weather outside her window. She also tells me how my eyes sparkled when I visited her. That’s it. It is a perfect letter that serves as a gentle tether to a woman who has turned to mist in my memories.
Emily Post was reassuring to her readers in 1922. After providing pages and pages of letter writing etiquette she clarified it all with these words “Write as simply as possible and let your heart speak as truly and as you can. Forget, if you can, that you are using written words, think merely how you feel—then put your feelings on paper—that is all.”
“This morning when you woke we decided to spend your final day of being three doing special things together. Then you began to panic, you said were not ready to be four; that you were not ready to change. What if tomorrow you were no longer able to fit under the table when you wanted to hide, you asked? What if tomorrow when you woke, you were so different you no longer felt like you?
You began to cry. Telling me that you were so happy being three; telling me that you wanted to be three for another year or two. I held you close and my eyes filled with tears. I told you we could pretend, until you were ready, that you were still three. You looked me in the eyes, brushed my hair back and then kissed my cheek. You told me that you couldn’t be three any longer; that life changes and you had to grow up. Before I could cry, before the rising sob reached my throat, you leapt off my lap and ran to the door, calling after me that I was too slow, you were ready to go.”
Diane Selkirk is a Vancouver, BC WAHM who enjoys writing for a variety of magazines when she is not writing letters to Maia. http://www.dianeselkirk.com/