Friday, 29 January 2010
A Handwritten Letter from 1946
With the internet, I can access millions of words in seconds, without paying a penny for the effort taken to create them. I can comment on a blog by a celebrity journalist, and my words are on-screen with theirs. I can update my Facebook or Twitter and around 1000 people across the planet know my daughter has lost a tooth before the blood has dried. I am famous for 15 minutes. But has this flood of words diluted their value? When I go clack-clack-clack and slap ‘send’, have I created anything my great-grandchildren could find? And if they found it, would it give them a piece of me or a piece of fluff?
I have finally investigated a family story.
As a child my mother was often told, ‘if it was not for the snow you would be Welsh!’
In Britain, the winter of 1946-47 was legendary. It lasted from December through to March, with temperatures dropping to –21 degrees centigrade and snow drifts of 23 foot in the Scottish Highlands. Our recent flurry just don’t compare.
Just before the first flakes fell, my grandparents were in England staying with my grandfather’s family; my grandmother in the final stages of her pregnancy. They planned to return to North Wales for the birth and to set-up home, but the snow started to settle. There was no M62 motorway then, the only route to Wales was through Snake Pass - across the Peak District and full of hairpin bends and steep gradients. They could not risk it. So the baby came in Lincolnshire, and mum was a Yellow Belly not a Taffy. They called her Rita after Rita Hayworth.
Soon after the birth, a parcel arrived from Wales. It was addressed to Rita Bach (in English, Little Rita). Inside was a tiny, soft toy rabbit and a letter.
This is Tommy Rabbit introducing himself. I am to be your new boy friend, but there is a catch in it. I’m to play with you during the day but I’ve got to sleep with the girls at night – your Aunty Jean and Aunty Grace. I only hope that they will let me give you a good night kiss. By the way it’s your Uncle Bill that sends me and he wants me to give you a big kiss when I arrive – if I can get my breath back after being in that box.
From Uncle Bill to Rita Bach
Don’t you love his graceful, copperplate hand?
Bill was my grandmother’s brother. And yes, that's his photograph at the start of this blog, taken around the time he wrote the letter, when he was 25. I know, he looks older, doesn't he?
Aunty Jean and Aunty Grace were the sisters of my Grandfather; with those names they now sound like old dears, but of course they were pretty young ladies in 1946. Seems they had caught Bill’s eye, anyway.
A receipt from a removal firm confirms the family did get to Wales some five months later. So Bill and Rita Bach finally met when she was a plump, giggling, starting-to-sit-up-on-her-own kind of baby.
Sixy-four years later Tommy Rabbit still sits at my mum’s bedside. He now carries the letter in a little pouch around his neck. Made from sheepskin, Tommy was originally baby pink, but that’s faded away. If you dig your fingers into his fur you can see a little peach, though, and there's still a twinkle in his eye.
Uncle Bill died at 28 from tuberculosis, three years after writing the letter; three years into my mother’s life. Of course she has no memory of being with him, but because of the letter he is a real person to her, not just a few photographs, documents and a gravestone.
He’s someone who sprinkled magic onto one of the few toys she owned.
She often talks about the letter from the rabbit, so last week I asked to have a look at it for myself. And of course it got me thinking. And here’s what I think.
Keep the hand-written letter alive, for those big moments at least. I guarantee it will make someone feel incredibly special. But it will also stop your contribution to history, to your family’s story, becoming a handful of certificates and some dusty gadgets that don't work.
And don’t get me started on digital photos…
If you enjoyed this, you might also like to read In Which I Humiliate my Mother, which tells of her return to school after a 50-year gap.