written by Sonia Cancian
“I spend my entire day thinking of you! How much time do I still need to wait before I can hold you again??”
“When you write, imagine that the first thing that your husband does upon returning home from work is check if there is any mail for him, and only upon seeing your handwriting does his fatigue pass.”
“I reread your last two letters. In them I find so much true love, so much affection, so much comfort in your words that you cannot imagine. They bring me everything I need to continue to love, to hope.”
As these words hurdled before me on wafer-thin paper customarily used for airmail postal delivery in the 1940s and 1950s, I wondered about the power of love, the heightening of affections and words, and ultimately, the extraordinary telepathy that these etchings of the heart evoked for the letter writers.
“You won’t find anything interesting in these letters,” I had been cautioned by a potential research participant prior to viewing a collection of letters. “But if you want to see them, I will lend them to you. There are about twenty pages.” It was my brother’s birthday party and while the music played and friends and family cheered, Renzo had quietly confided to me about the letters that remained couched in the household cantina. Several years before Renzo and his wife Ester had fallen in love and married, she had had a long distance relationship with a young man in Rome named Giordano. In March 1957 when Ester had been compelled to leave her life in the Eternal city and join her older brothers in Montreal, Giordano had remained behind fuelled by the flaming hope of Ester’s imminent return. It would not be so. As I absorbed the emotional urgency with which the letters were penned, my mind drifted to the countless women and men who had been separated from their dear ones –fiancés, lovers, spouses– in Italy and Canada in the early years following the end of World War II. What was it like to feel so unconditionally loved yet so intensely apart? Did distance make their hearts grow fonder? Did separated couples ever reunite? As a scholar, I also thought about the challenges of unearthing extraordinary love stories told through letters. How did these letters survive all this time? Under what conditions? And, what can they reveal about the intersections of romantic love and immigration?
The genre itself raised a panoply of questions around themes of literacy, print culture, gender, and acceptable forms of describing the affairs of the heart, not to mention the overarching need to fare bella figura (make a good impression) when the letter, in many ways, embodied their love. Letters have historically been an object of acute fascination since antiquity. Public and private letters pertaining to family, business, spiritual, or personal and intimate matters have been vital to the communication of information. Yet, the elixir of letter writing has been, and remains, the love letter.
Indeed, while many of us speculate that digital technologies have decidedly eclipsed the ancient art of letter writing, we should ask ourselves if the effect of a love letter is the same if sent by email, text, or other digital technologies. In other words, does technology matter in the way we express and understand romantic emotions?
And, what of immigrant letters? Throughout my childhood, my father would often turn to his family’s letters tucked away in a dark-green carton luggage with which he had first crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the S.S. Argentina in December of 1951. Like other immigrants, he had carefully archived the thirty or so letters his parents had sent to him in the first years of his life in Canada.
While these letters held a degree of interest to me, it was, upon visiting my grandmother Maria in Spilimbergo (Pordenone) in 1986 that my curiosity about letters, and especially love letters, was bolstered. In the kitchen, under my grandmother’s observant gaze, I witnessed first-hand the romance that had imbued my grandparents as a young married couple. My grandfather Giovanni had immigrated to Amiens, France, to work in a cinder-brick factory shortly after their wedding in 1929. To stay in touch, they exchanged letters. With words, elegantly choreographed, thoughts, carefully allegorized, and endearments of love, delicately meditated, the letters stood neatly side by side in a white shoebox –never to be seen again.
No photograph was taken of that memorable moment shared between me and my grandmother. However, my grandfather’s closing words in the letters “tuo per sempre” (“forever yours”) remain firmly etched in the memory of my heart. “Love letters straight from your heart, keep us so near while apart, I’m not alone in the night, when I have all the love that you write. I memorize every line, I kiss the name that you sign. And, darling, then I read again right from the start, love letters straight from your heart.” Much as the lyrics of Love Letters, a 1945 song recently re-launched by Diana Krall echo, love letters are more than instruments of nostalgic romance.
In fact, there is far more to love letters than we might assume: the time, the attention, the effort required in conveying intimate thoughts and affections in a language we normally would not use in face-to-face conversations, the effect of paper touched by the hand of an absent lover, and the calligraphy, urgently unravelling a lover’s most pressing concerns. All of these elements offer a constellation of meanings beyond words. They represent a vital part of our humanity.