Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.
Handwritten letters hold tangible reminders of love, loss and the circle of life; you can’t order those online or touch them on iCloud.
February is the month to celebrate love, to make ostentatious declarations of the romantic kind. I have never been one to make a big deal of Valentine’s Day yet, I can’t help getting sucked into the hype of flowers, chocolate and gifts that dominates my feed. As my mind tries to fight the pull of pop culture, my heart goes on a different tangent. What about the other shades of love I have been fortunate to experience in my life?
Proof of love
“There’s no such thing as love, only proofs of love” ~ attributed variously to Pierre Reverdy and Jean Cocteau.
My maternal grandmother’s birthday fell on Valentine’s Day, a concept that I tried to explain (unsuccessfully) to her as a teenager back in the Bombay of the last century, a cosmopolitan city that was liberal and open to Western influences. For a woman married at the age of nine and widowed at 59, the whole point of public declarations of love was a difficult concept to grasp. For her, love was not to be found in what you said but in what you did.
When she came to live with us in our tiny apartment after losing her husband (and consequently her independence), her presence was reflected in her contributions to our household. From participating in the day’s cooking, combing my hair or sponsoring occasional sweet treats for her grandchildren, there was abundant proof of her love but no overt declarations. One memory indelibly seared on my impressionable mind was of her reading aloud stories from a Telugu language Chandamama book to my mother in the evenings when the women had some leisure time. The bond that she shared with my mother was what I wanted when I grew up and craved a child of my own.
At the age of 51, my mother bid goodbye to the two most important women in her life. I left for the US and my grandmother died three weeks later. I wonder how Amma felt then. Although my father and brothers were around to comfort her, I am sure she missed the nurturing presence of her own mother as much as she missed me. Trying to figure out my new life in my first winter in Washington DC, I can’t remember if I had been considerate enough to enquire about Amma’s wellbeing. Phone calls were expensive, and letters took weeks to find their way home. The regret of not having expressed my concern pierces me every February as I mark my mother’s death anniversary more than a dozen years after her death.
A rare gift in this day and age
In a special storage box in my home is a pack of old letters. These were written to me by people who formed my family and community a long time ago – parents, siblings, friends, relatives.
I look at the pile often, but I hesitate to touch them or sort them or read them. They are like ancient relics in a museum, for display only, with a large invisible sign that says DO NOT TOUCH.
The act of reading those common yet intimate letters needs more mental energy and emotional resilience than what I am willing to spare at the moment. Yet, I know that this tangible reminder of my past, not all of which is special or sensational, is something that keeps me grounded.
I have kept them safe because I plan to read them. Some day. Not today.
The letters are reminders of a time in my life when I was far away from my parents, missing my family and the comforts of home.
Now my daughter is far from home, making her life in another country. There is a vacuum in my life, a sense of being unmoored as I realize that my days of active mothering are behind me. With the changing times, she and I have many channels to communicate, most of them free. We speak and text and get on video calls when she wants to show me the beautiful sky as she goes for a run in the evening.
But what will she have decades from now, perhaps when she is an empty nester like me, to remind her of all our conversations about the mundane and the profound things that constitute life? She will not have a stack of yellowing pages to glance through, no pile of crumbling papers that bear my handwriting.
A personal proof of love
Like my parents, I find it difficult to say “I love you” to my grown child. And given the difficulties of creating proofs of love like my mother and grandmother did, with homemade meals and neatly combed braids, I have limited options.
My way of understanding the world is through writing. So today, I will write a letter to my faraway daughter.
Because I want her to have a stack of handwritten letters, treasure trove of tangible memories, like the ones I have. Yes, I know there is cloud storage for all the photos we have together, and perhaps even chat messages are archived; still, there is a different texture to the closeness you feel while touching a familiar object. If preserved, these letters will last longer than me.
So, my gift this Valentine’s Day to my daughter, is a simple letter to get us started. I will open that pretty letter-writing kit, an impulse buy at a bookstore a few months ago that makes the process of letter writing easy and practical. I don’t want to labor over what I write. What makes it special is not the fancy stationery or the sage advice. It is simply a conversation between mother and daughter. Its value is in the act of communication in a physical form that may outlive its ephemeral digital counterparts. It’s not the words but time that will give it special meaning over time.
Just as our lives are but mere blinks in the immense universe, this letter will be proof of our existence, a small paper stake in the vast virtual world.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My Happily Ever After – A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery, now available worldwide. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram