It is Sunday today.
Many Sundays when I was a child and until I graduated from boarding school, I would sit down with pen and paper and write a letter. These were to my parents.
Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663, oil on canvas. Johannes Vermeer, 1632-1675, Dutch.
On loan from the City of Amsterdam to the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. On further loan to The National Gallery, Washington, DC in 2015.
I have, by the circumstances of my life been separated – for all my life – from my family and from the friends of my youth. The letters between us continued until the dawn of the electronic age. After which emails. Sometimes.
I have kept the letters close.
I write letters now on rare occasions and to one rare friend holding out against the modern age. I can see her sitting down in a window to read my letter.
Lady writing a Letter, 1665; oil on canvas. Johannes Vermeer, 1632-1675. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
These two paintings illustrate why I love letters.
You are all my focus when I write a letter and when I read your reply. Almost the equal of your physical presence. Quiet when they are written and stillness when they are read. Re-read.
I am far more careful with what I say in a letter, and how, than when I write an email and even when I speak. Far fewer misspellings than my emails contain. And very little loose syntax.
Any abbreviation would have a private provenance. The letters of one of my friends often had the doodlings of her boyfriend crawling up the side and invading the text. Needless to say, it was not him whom she married. Sometimes a dried petal or a photograph or a wedding invitation among the pages of the letter. Always markers of anniversaries.
A letter: a single moment in the lives of two people apart; and a distillation of months and years of interaction.