My Mother’s 90th Birthday

It’s my mother’s 90th birthday today and we got her a smart phone. I set it up at home, slotted in the sim card, filled it with our numbers and uploaded it with assorted apps. Then I put it in the post.

Whilst the rest of the world is video conferencing itself silly, my mother is not waiting around for a ride from that particular platform. But she lives on her own and we want her to see the faces of her family across the world. And we want to see hers.

I said that we would need to connect her new phone to the internet and she told me that I might as well tell her to fly to the moon.

Anyway the phone arrived through the post a couple of days ago and now she’s contemplating the package on the kitchen table like a bomb disposal expert with rubber gloves. It may be the technology or it may be the fear of germs, I’m not sure.

My mother’s preferred method of communication is the letter. She writes a very beautiful letter. Over her life she has written thousands of them. They have followed us across the world, dispatched from her Bluebird typewriter that would sit in the middle of the kitchen table as life went on around it.

This is where the package from planet Zoom now sits.

When I went to board at school the letters would arrive every couple of weeks and when I went to university they would follow with chatty news and recipes and newspaper cuttings. I may not have read them all very closely at the time but still I kept them, stuffed into boxes and drawers and books as markers.

One of my lockdown tasks has been to collect them together and sort them out into date order. The first I have is from 1976. I have 206 of them in all and over the last few weeks I have re-read the entire oeuvre.

She wrote about Diana’s wedding and Mrs Thatcher’s and Reagan’s election victories. She has rude things to say about most politicians, but she writes lyrically about the changing seasons and the landscape, particularly in Suffolk.

Her letters are full of stories about her own childhood and life in London just after the war, but they are unsentimental and matter of fact, full of telling detail.

In one from 1985 she looks back to VE day at school: “I haven’t worked up much VE day nostalgia as I can’t remember the day being different from any other at Downe House. Maybe we had a day off which would have meant just wandering around the pine woods with a picnic lunch of cream crackers and a sliver of hard cheddar!”

The thing about letters is that they have physical form. They are moments in time, with their typos and crossings out and margin notes.

I hope she will enjoy the possibilities of smart phone wizardry but the gift of connectivity is not without its cost. Texts and emails and voicemail messages have an immediacy that can be thrilling but they pass and then what’s left of WhatsApp?

End to End encryption is not the same as the black and whiteness of the written word and the weight of a letter that arrives in the morning, in your hand, sealed with love.