[ignore]Image credit: phozographer [/ignore]
Most days when you open your mailbox for the postal lucky dip, you expect to reveal an unfortunate bill or shiny takeaway menu, not a personalised letter. So when I read that 71-year-old Scott McMurry received a postcard 53-years (!) after his mother sent it from the Shedd Aquarium, it seemed like a poetic miracle, literally from another time.
I encountered this sentimental story after venturing to my local Post Office to send a rather haphazardly packaged, valuable item. After dropping the parcel into the mailing chute, I was overcome with anxiety that it wouldn’t reach its destination. Clearly this was not a fear shared by McMurry’s mother, who, all those years ago, had scrawled on the postcard ‘We’ll probably be home before this gets there!’
As a child of the eighties, I grew up with penpals across the world. For weeks on end I would wait with bated breath for the postman to deliver the written voices of my friends in rural Australia or urban UK. I would then dedicate myself to reading the precious response – which would most likely just describe the banalities of everyday life elsewhere. I loved it so much – it would never have occurred to me that this would become a relatively defunct form of communication or pastime, usurped by the newer, multiple relatives of the single Apple computer screen we had at my school.
Given hindsight (and the rise of sexting) it seems naïve that we merely had penpals as kids, but there is something romantic and sad about losing the anticipation of receiving mail. The action of waiting for the mailman – so perfectly encapsulated in lyrics such as ‘Wait a minute, Mister Postman’ – is now a rare experience. (Is the modern version ‘Wait a minute while I click refresh and my Gmail reloads’ or ‘I don’t expect a call, just write on my Facebook wall’?)
My postal-safety anxiety stems from my now irregular experience with post, but it’s no revelation that the digital age has changed the mail system, with envelopes, stamps and handwritten notes coming second to immediate emails, a variety of fonts and social networks. And obviously this newer type of correspondence has its merits – McMurry received his postcard after a kind stranger’s Facebook sleuthing! But I don’t intend to weigh up pros and cons.
I think this push away from post towards a less personalised form of correspondence gives postcards and letters a special sentimentality – it is heart-warming to receive something handwritten instead of typed at 75 wpm. Nostalgic as it may seem, there is nothing I like more than receiving a postcard from friends overseas – it remains a sensory token or gift from their trip.
The anticipation that is associated with waiting for mail, along with its tactile nature, gives it a time-travel element, with stories like McMurry’s adding to the sepia sheen. We may not wait 53-years, but each letter received feels like a diluted form of the Shedd Aquarium postcard time-capsule – a little piece of someone’s history.
Stephanie Van Schilt is a writer and editor, arts worker and Kill Your Darlings’ Online Intern.