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Letters | By Barbara Ridley

They arrived every three or four weeks, tumbling out of the mailbox, sandwiched between the credit card offers and the utility bills. I would set aside the flimsy envelope with the English airmail stamps and central European cursive, and wait until the evening chores were done. Then I would sit down with a cup of tea and read my mother’s letter.

It was often disappointing.

“What does she say?” my partner would ask.

“Same old boring stuff.”

And it was. Mindless chitchat about the English weather, the endless coughs and colds, gossip about elderly relatives whom I could barely remember. When I wrote to her about anything more intimate—like during the period in my late 30s when I was agonizing about whether or not to have a child—I awaited her reply with guarded anticipation. Perhaps she would offer some valuable advice, or at least reassure me that she would love me no matter what. But I searched in vain for a response to my questions or revelations.

Mrs. Trout’s gone into a nursing home, poor thing.

For the last 20 years of my mother’s life, she and I lived on different continents, 6,000 miles apart. We kept up a regular correspondence. But her generation was not raised to dwell on feelings. And in her early 20s, she experienced indescribable trauma. She escaped the Holocaust; her mother and baby sister did not. She coped by squirreling away all emotion into some secret corner of her heart.

We sometimes talked on the telephone, on holidays or after earthquakes, but she never became comfortable with long-distance phone calls. I’d better go. This must be costing you a fortune. She never learned to use email, or even the answering machine. Oh gosh . . . Um . . . Could you please tell Barbara that her mother called? We mostly communicated through letters.

Then she died suddenly—10 years ago, peacefully in her sleep after a short flu-like illness. Her death meant an end to the letters from home. My father survived her, but he’d never been the letter-writer, and a few months later, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He wrote once, in an incoherent scrawl that made me weep. When I visited, he’d forgotten how to sign a check.

My mother didn’t like to talk about what happened after she escaped Czechoslovakia in 1938. But on one occasion, she agreed to record an oral history. She spoke of the letters from her own mother, which ceased abruptly in 1940. It wasn’t until the end of the war in 1945 that her worst fears were confirmed: Her mother and sister had been deported to Terezín, and did not survive. Now, the sudden end to those letters assumed a new poignancy for me. In comparison, I could hardly complain. My mother died in her own bed at the age of 83.

Yet I missed her letters more than I ever imagined. I hunted through boxes and rummaged through drawers, and found that I had saved most of them. There’s a gap of three years in the mid-’80s; I vaguely remember discarding a bundle when I moved, thinking I would never need them. But those that I kept are now organized in a three-ring binder, each page in its own sheet protector, arranged in chronological order. They’re like jewels.

And they’re far from boring. They represent a vivid tapestry of our relationship over the years, a living portrait which resonates with her voice. When I re-read them now, I find that she did offer encouragement to me as I pursued graduate school. She conferred words of praise for my professional success. There are references to good times we enjoyed together touring Yosemite or Mendocino, and fascinating comments on news items that are now historical events: the disaster at Chernobyl, the election that swept Tony Blair to power, the death of Princess Diana.

Most of all, the letters resonate with her quiet, ironic sense of humor. I can see her eyes sparkle as she describes some bureaucratic absurdity or ridiculous media story.

We’re going to have a total eclipse of the sun next week, and are bombarded with advice from the experts: (1) don’t look at all, just two seconds and you’re blinded forever (2) nonsense, just buy my special goggles and all will be fine. It will probably be cloudy anyway.

It took years for me to get used to there being no more letters from her. I looked for them in the mailbox when I returned home from work. I caught myself thinking of news I should include in my next letter to her: My daughter made the varsity softball team, we drove to Big Sur over spring break, our lemon tree has a bumper crop this year. I still feel sad that she doesn’t know these things.

My daughter is away at school now on the other side of the country. We keep in close contact, communicating far more frequently than my mother and I ever did. We text or Skype or email several times a week, and “like” each other’s Facebook postings.

But we don’t write. I no longer receive personal correspondence from anyone. Nothing interesting plops out of the mailbox. I have no letters to re-read on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or assemble into a three-ring binder.

Barbara Ridley is a nurse practitioner and writer living in Albany. She grew up in England, but has made the Bay Area her home for the past 30 years.


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Photo by Piotr Marcinski.