Long, long ago there lived a people… No computers. No smartphones. No email. No texting. Just the lost art of sending a letter… I got to know some of them. My parents were both avid communicators and diligent composers of weekly letters – as were both my grandmothers too. My granny told her daughter – my mother: “Every day I get a letter from You is mother´s day!” I remember my father standing in the dining room before lunch to open the mail, which Hanns Gnauk had picked up punctually in Pomeroy at 11h00 every day. And most of these forebears I can still picture at some table inside or outside the house, drafting letters by hand. It was only later on, when my siblings came of age, that my parents switched to the typewriter as the young ones couldn´t read their handwriting, which was perfectly legible, very structured and uniform really. Still, that´s how things change in large families as the years pass and the generations change. I never got to see a letter from either of my grandfathers as far as I know. There might be some note of my grandfather Weber in the old books still…
My grandfather Paul Ziegenhagen wrote letters to his young bride from the Russian front, sometimes even twice a day. Then one day these letters stopped. My grandmother stopped writing, but not hoping yet. That would happen years later… On the way out – not when they tried to flee from the Russians on the last train, but rather when they were later expelled by the Poles, all those love letters were scattered violently in their house. Worse happened, so nobody considered gathering old letters. No use to cry over spilled milk. My grandmother later voiced her hope, that nobody would have been able to read her husband´s handwriting anyway. As her father had quipped: “That´s not a handwriting, that´s an impertinence!” (“Zumutung!”) So, in the end none of those letters made it to prosperity, but got lost in the ensuing chaos of a lost war. The other grandfather – Christian Heinrich Wilhelm Weber – had probably just outgrown that habit of writing letters by the time I was able to read anything.
A letter from Pomeroy (“Enhlanhleni” P.O.Box 11) took a few day to get to the board school in Wartburg (“Wartburg Kirchdorf Schülerheim”) and just about the same to get to Pretoria (Boekenhout: “Mans koshuis” UP) and “Valhalla”, “Voortrekkerhoogte”, “Murrayhill” and all the other army bases). Even to Altkönigstraße 150 (Oberursel i.T) or Fahrstraße 15 (Erlangen, Franken) it didn´t take longer than that. A letter a week – that was the regular norm. We even planned our wedding in Lüneburg, KZN using the mail back then, but that´s another story…
Some of my best friends still use this ancient style, which has proven itself over the ages – and not only at Christmas or Thanksgiving. Thank God! It´s a good feeling opening the postbox and getting a letter all the way from Seattle or Melbourne even. Sometime in the nineties I switched my weekly circular to email and just stopped using snail-mail. My father continued both methods to the end – and I´m sure, his old friends not connected by email were grateful for that.
Here in Germany the postbox is not red like in the old colony South Africa, but yellow. Even the old GDR, which had some of the most beautiful stamps – just like Romania, Bulgaria and Poland in those days, used those colours. Well, there´s still a box like that fixed to our house in Wittenberg – and the postman comes by every day – punctual as ever. Even though I´m no longer waiting for post from Africa – that just doesn´t happen that way anymore. It´s either email or nothing. I guess it does save some paper and every time the computer rings “You´ve got mail“, I´m bound to jump and sing:
Kommt ein Vogel geflogen,
setzt sich nieder auf mein’ Fuß,
hat ein’ Zettel im Schnabel,
von der Mutter ein’ Gruß.
Lieber Vogel, fliege weiter,Folk song
nimm ein Gruß mit und ein Kuss,
denn ich kann dich nicht begleiten,
weil ich hier bleiben muss.