Those of you with overseas relatives may remember a time when communication with loved ones was not so easy. There was no internet, texting, instant messaging, WhatsApp, Facebook, or cell phones. Sure, there were landlines but calls were expensive. (Were you expecting me to say telegrams? Carrier pigeons? How old do you think I am anyway?) What we did have were those tissue-thin, faded blue, self-folding aerogrammes, the cheaper way to send a letter. The aerogramme is one of many things I learned about from my husband. (Others include: hot lemonade is good when you're sick, and for some reason beyond mortal comprehension Australians love Vegemite).
I used to watch my future husband dutifully write to his parents each month filling the aerogramme front and back with his neat handwriting and then carefully folding it up and sealing it. It would take a week for that flimsy piece of paper to reach India and it was nothing short of a miracle that it did. His parents always wrote back, sometimes separately, and those letters also took a week to arrive. As a native Floridian attending college in New Orleans I saw my parents frequently and couldn't imagine being so far away for such a long stretch; I also spoke with them every Sunday. This formal process of communication that took weeks to complete was fascinating to me. It was like looking up at the night sky knowing the light you saw had taken thousands of years to reach your eyes. That star could already be a supernova but it would take generations to find out. In other words, it was old news.
My husband would let me read the letters he received and explain to me who everyone was and their backstory. It took me a while to notice that every letter from his mother had the same word at the top right corner--Safe. When I asked about it, he said that's how he knew everyone was okay and the letter wasn't bad news. Even then, when I was only 24, I thought that was wonderful. Isn't that the first thing you want to know about your loved ones, that they're safe? In their case, of course, a lot could change in the week it took a letter to arrive--but that's what telephones were for, right? Now, 33 years later, I reflect on all the times I've received bad news and how the delivery was never fast enough to keep my imagination from running wild. Once, my mother called me up crying and I thought something had happened to one of my sisters. By the time she finally got around to telling me my 87 year old great-aunt had passed away, I was faint with relief. Safe, why couldn't she just start with that?
After my husband and I were engaged I started writing to my future in-laws on aerogrammes. I soon learned that if you try to erase a mistake, you'll tear the paper and have to start over. When I was a kid I had a pen-pal I never met so I had experience writing letters to strangers, but it was weird to do it as an adult with your future mother-in-law. We got to know each other though and soon felt comfortable enough to joke around. When she wrote to me that we would have to work on my handwriting, I responded good luck with that.
Now I can communicate with my mother-in-law in India instantly and by Skype. Sometimes when we're chatting on Facebook my brother-in-law in Australia will jump into the conversation, all of us in different time zones, one waking up while the other gets ready for bed. It's amazing and I love it but the best thing is I don't have to wait. I always know everyone is safe.