Sending out messages via social media like “Peace and good wishes to all” may be no better than whispering to a wild daisy on a drought-stricken field. But these online connections are all we have sometimes to somehow keep in touch over such great physical distances. That word, “touch,” sounds so odd to use in this way.
Many years ago, while I was a student at a university in Manila, I lost a poetry book I had borrowed from the British Council. I’ve told the story many times (here or elsewhere), and I hope my memory doesn’t fail me that I mix up the various details.
I had to pay for the book, which the British Council officer made clear with his very stern face. On a whim I sent a letter to the publisher, hoping to get a replacement. A long time passed and I forgot all about the matter. Then out of the blue I got a letter from the author, British poet Elizabeth Bartlett. She sent me a signed copy.
She also kept writing back to me through the years, sending me new books of hers as they were published. When I moved to South Africa she kept in touch. I wasn’t as good by then keeping up the correspondence as I was a bit lost at the time – in many ways that I didn’t know. And then there was a silence. It took me a few years to find out she had passed away.
Some months ago I rediscovered a greeting card from Elizabeth. I don’t know what year she sent it. She didn’t write the date, and the date stamp that a Philippine postal worker had pounded hastily upon it with rubber and ink was not any help.
This card now brings both joy and sadness. I look at her wobbly writing and I remember not just her, but also my mother who passed away last month. Her birthday is on 30 December. For decades we were not so sure in what year she was born, for the records office where her original birth certificate was kept got burned down during the mad American bombings of Manila (even as the retreating Japanese forces had already surrendered to signal the end of Worl War 2). The new certificate she was issued much later and could not be verified.
Still, here we are. Here I am, holding the greeting card from someone I only knew through words on ink and paper, someone who had her first book of poetry published when she was already so much older than I am today.
Elizabeth, you forgot to say when you sent that Christmas greeting with a photo of swans on the lake at Stourhead. Or did you mean to leave out the date so that I can keep on wondering how it was that day you wrote my name on the envelope. Did you have doubts the card would reach me in time for Christmas, or that it would reach me at all? Did you think your letter would be counted these days as “snail mail” – something quite rare among the younger generation?
I can’t remember ever saying thank you. Perhaps by sharing it today with those who never knew you I’m somehow saying that. Your words touched me across boundaries of space and time.