A long long time ago (like almost 40 years) I was an exchange student to the USA. In those days the job and the title was prestigious, sought after and impressive. Exactly to whom I’m not sure, but people raised their eyebrows (possibly in wonder), smiled politely, gave the equivalent of a high five and wished me well on my year abroad. It was also the only time I got really good grades in my final year of school (make that all my years of school) because I knew I had to appear “kind of bright” to get a look in. My mother, a college lecturer at the time, made extra wedding dresses and iced beautiful cakes to afford the ticket for me – her barely 17 year old, fresh-out-of-school daughter who was ever so ready to share her country and culture whilst embracing the American dream and thinking she could foster global understanding and world peace at the same time.
Oh the illusions of youth.
I’m not sure I managed to do any of those things. My culture for one, as a white, middle classed South African girl was ignorantly flawed and full of the propaganda prepping received in pre-exchange student training. Here we were taught the intricacies of being your country’s best ambassador and all the pomp that goes with that. You don’t know what you don’t know and in hindsight I knew less than a little of the truth behind apartheid and the constitutional rulings by the South African government of the day. I still cringe. But that’s a story for another time; suffice to say I brought home a totally different perspective to the one I left with. S’truth.
What I did know, and still know now, is that some of my most treasured forever-people came into my life during that time. Facebook has made it all so easy to keep in touch. And Email. And Instagram. And Twitter. And Whatsapp. And Messenger. And Skype and Facetime. And all the other instant communicators in whatever form that have now become the norm. This is a good thing. Yet…
40 years ago all we had were cripplingly expensive phone calls and letters – handwritten in pen and plopped into (usually red) post boxes on the corner. Sometimes they arrived two weeks later, sometimes a month. Always the news was old but eagerly anticipated and every word devoured by the heart and often accompanied by a bit of a weep and much longing. I adored receiving letters from home and I loved replying with my own news too. My mother kept every one of my letters in a file and on my return I had a diary of my comings and goings to read and remember. Such a treasure. Another “mother” who kept many of my letters written post U.S., through my college years, wedding preparations, children, million of moves and right up to her passing a few years ago was a beautiful woman by the name of Barbara Lasley. This lady took me in when my exchange student days began to unravel and reveal the ugly side of being far from home and all alone. When things didn’t quite go as planned, logistically and emotionally, she held my hand, baked banana bread and provided me a school aftercare that saved my sanity and I’m sure my life. She became a treasured mentor and very dear friend and I remember so clearly our last conversation a few days before she left this earth. As sick as she was she still laughed down the phone and told me how fabulous I was.
I cried then, just as I cried a little today when a package from America arrived for me. It came from Barbara’s very kind son Scott who took the time and trouble to mail the photo album in which, Mrs L as I called her, kept every picture I’d sent her through the years and my handwritten letters. As I read through them, more than the content, I marvelled at my handwriting, which looks near perfect compared to my now degenerated, barely legible scrawl so rarely practiced when a keyboard is so much easier and quicker.
I wonder if anyone handwrites letters anymore or have they become the missing ink of communications? I’m fairly positive that emails and Facebook and the others do not have the lasting legacy of a longhand written, sealed and stamped letter. (I mean, move over Snap chat you’re gone and forgotten in just 24hours).
In 40 years from now, I’m quite sure nothing will be left of these words hastily banged out on a laptop. Indeed, nothing will be left of the laptop and quite possibly nothing left of me either. And who knows how people will communicate and keep in touch across the miles and indeed across the dinner table – if that even exists. Maybe Rumi was right when he said “Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words.”
I can only hope that this inner bond never disappears, as then there will most definitely be nothing to write home about.