When I left home for University in the 1980s, the only way to call home was to head off to a telephone box on the street, with a handful of small change. So my Mum and I wrote to each other at least weekly.
In this world of mobile phones, that seems as archaic as a two-piece candlestick telephone with a handcrank.
Nowadays, parents and children can not only call each other pretty much wherever they are, they can text, email, Skype, FaceTime, Facebook message, Twitter DM…Ways to stay in touch are manifold (which doesn’t, of course, mean that young people keep in touch as much as their parents might like).
Over the years, I’ve accumulated friends in many countries. Some of them I met while travelling. Others are friends that used to be based in the UK, who have since moved abroad.
Before the internet arrived to enable us to share not just words on paper but real-time communication, videos and photos, we used to write to each other several times a year.
Back in the days when people regularly exchanged letters with loved ones far away, we could quickly build up a large store of old letters.
Maybe you’ve got such a store yourself.
Or maybe you’ve inherited one.
Recently, I’ve been supporting someone to declutter a stack of letters going back nearly 100 years…
…letters written from boarding school by her father to his parents…
…letters exchanged by her parents…
…letters from her brother to her parents, when he lived abroad in the middle of the last century.
With their airmail marking, old fashioned stamps, copperplate script and yellowed edges, they look significant. Important. A matter of family history.
But here’s the thing. These are not fascinating historical records. They don’t describe the day of the 1929 Wall Street crash or the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. Neither do they contain intriguing family data, detailing marriages, births, deaths, house moves etc.
They’re the equivalent of the weekly phone call home. They comment on the weather, mention flowers that are doing well in the garden and enquire after the health of pets. They record trivialities that we no longer bother to put on paper.
But they were put on paper. And, as a result, they’ve hung around for decades.
Now they’ve ended up with my client, stored dustily in open paper bags, shoved under a table in the hall.
They’ve been weighing on her mind. All that past sitting there, waiting to be revisited.
The very thought of them makes her groan.
We’ve been going through them together, checking them for anything important, keeping interesting photos tucked into them or any that are of emotional significance.
The rest we’ve been shredding.
Museums and libraries don’t want old letters. Besides, would it be fair on those who wrote them, to put them in public hands?
As with many decluttering tasks, the worst thing was the anticipation. Actually going through the letters isn’t as painful as she’d feared.
And letting them go is liberating.
I’m not saying you have to get rid of old letters. If they give you pleasure, keep them (ideally organised in a way that makes it easy for you to enjoy them).
But if you’ve got stacks of letters that don’t contain anything of interest, maybe it’s time to sort through them.
And give thanks that we’re no longer obliged to accumulate paper in order to stay in touch.
Right…I’m off to phone my Mum.
Tips for sorting old letters
1. Scan them for anything of significance. Maybe you’d like to keep letters announcing births, deaths and marriages.
2. Check envelopes for important photographs – and money!
3. Shred anything private/personal.
4. You might like to save the stamps to donate to charity.
5. Organise and store any you keep so you can appreciate them.