Writing letters was a ritual drummed into me throughout childhood. Money, gifted for birthdays or Christmas, would be left on the piano, tantalizingly out of reach but within sight, until the last thank-you note was mailed. Birthday cards, dinner party thanks, thinking-of-yous – I still send them all by mail.
As a child, I remember yearning to receive letters; mail was something seemingly only addressed to grown-ups, who’d grumble as they opened yet another bill. But when something arrived for me, I felt important: treated more as a person than just a kid.
It’s a feeling I wanted to pass along when a friend asked me to stand godparent to her first child, a boy who lived in rural England at the time.
To nurture our relationship, I could write him letters from my home in New York, I reasoned, or better yet, send him postcards.
I’m lucky to travel constantly for work, so this seemed a fitting personal gesture: unexpected but consistent, a surprise that would be waiting at home at the end of the school day.
It was also a chance, I hoped, to pass along my love of travel. I resolved to send a postcard to him from anywhere I spent the night, and to any subsequent godchildren I was lucky enough to land. I’d continue until their 18th birthday.
Since then, over almost two decades, I’ve learned a lot via that ritual.
Hotels in far-flung places will often produce their own cards, for example, stuffed into leather portfolios in a desk drawer.
Airports are often the best place to buy cards: from Morocco to Mendoza, Argentina, I’ve found dog-eared ones in the dusty corners of gift shops in the departure lounge.
And I’ve never missed a single destination, though I’ll admit to buying a few backups on Ebay in an emergency, most recently after a whistle-stop trip to Los Angeles.
I’ve adjusted some rules, too. I used to insist on mailing them in situ, until I spent an hour or so in a chaotic post office in Rio de Janeiro during the Olympics.
I dutifully posted a trio of cards covered in local stamps; not one reached its recipient.
Now I often mail them from home, relying on the US Postal Service instead. It’s a shame, though, as stamps – such as the gorgeous, intricate postage I found in Botswana – can be as alluring as the cards themselves.
Today, I have three godchildren. The youngest, Evy, is just 7; I write her cards carefully, printing each letter so the words are easy to decipher. Her parents have used them to help her learn to read with her older brothers’ help.
The next, 14-year-old Otto, calls me CardMark, so synonymous was I with the mailings in his toddler mind that he merged the two.
The oldest, Arthur, just turned 17; his imagination was particularly piqued by the ritual. I recall visiting him when he was 8 or so.
He proudly asked me to retrieve an overstuffed shoebox from a shelf high in his room. It was safely stashed there, he explained, so there was no risk of a destructive friend, prone to wrecking whatever toy he touched, ever damaging its contents.
Arthur had filed the cards carefully, if idiosyncratically, arranging them in his own categories – some of the places he prioritized based on a desire to visit (Las Vegas, Istanbul), others that made him sad (Miami, India).
Then he showed me a fistful of cards from Paris, somewhere I’ve visited often.
“This is my No. 1, where I really want to go,” he said, earnestly.
After a little discussion with his folks, I surprised him with a trip for the two of us to the City of Light for his 10th birthday.
There he sat happily sketching in his book at a cafe in Montmartre before we wrote postcards, together, and mailed them back to his parents and sister.
Of course, I’ve only one more year of mailing cards to him to fulfill my pledge to halt at 18.
Yet I already feel a twinge of sadness at stopping, a sense that I don’t want to surrender the connection they offer me to those kids. So maybe I’ll tweak another rule and just keep sending them until he’s 21.
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