When she was a high school student at the Liceo Classico Francesco De Sanctis in Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi, Irpinia (a rather obscure area of South Italy most Italians wouldn’t be able to point out on a map), my mother used to deal in letters.
In the late 1960s, in Italy, and especially in South Italy, not to mention the rural areas of Irpinia, there were still a lot of people, mainly women, who didn’t know how to read or write.
These were women whose husbands had often migrated – to America, Belgium, north Italy – and had only one way to send their news: letters. A lot of letters would arrive, back then. Letters to read, and to reply to.
My mother would read the letters to the women who couldn’t do so themselves, and her voice would transform the incomprehensible scribble into news of faraway men. Then the women would dictate the answers, and my mother would write them, trying her best to keep her notoriously illegible handwriting under control. In the letters, she’d write news of families, households, farms. Ordinary stuff.
But a letter, even when it’s a simple account of southern italian daily affairs, has to be special.
So, “arrecamammella ‘nu poc’”, “embellish it a little,” the ladies used to ask my mother. And she would, embellish those letters, she’d add just a pinch of poetry, to make them sound better.
Of course, remembering this story made me think about the fact that now we all know how to write, and we exchange more emails than we manage to read. But the embellishment is all gone, and so is the art of letter writing, because whoever has the time to write proper letters these days?
Well, I do.
If I tidy up my schedule a bit, I sure can find time to write letters. And I can find time to write other people’s letters too, just like my mom.
So, would you like me to write a letter on your behalf?