The first year that each of my sisters were at university, I sent them a letter every single week, without using the post office.
I got the idea from my mother. When I was small she didn’t go away often, but when she did she would leave a trail of notes that Dad would help us follow every day. They weren’t life changing, but it was regular contact with her. For example, Monday’s note might have said something along the lines of “I love you. Tuesday’s note is at the back of the mug cupboard. Be good for Dad. Mum xx.”
As my sister started preparing for university, I started wondering how this idea could translate to someone who was themselves going away, rather than being left behind. I obviously couldn’t sneak into her room before she got there and hide notes. For one thing, over the course of a term she would be bound to find them. For another, it would be very creepy.
I finally hit on the idea of nested envelopes.
When she went away I gave her a big thick envelope that had her name and the date of the start of term on it. On opening it she would find a letter from me, a card from someone else, and a slightly smaller envelope with next Sunday’s date on it. This pattern repeated itself until all the Sundays of term had passed and I would see her again.
Making this work consisted of two challenges. The first was finding suitable cards, and the second was filling them with messages.
Finding the cards was harder than I expected. It turns out that a lot of cards come in standard sizes, so if you want ones that are going to fit inside other ones you have to look quite carefully. You also have to choose whether to go for square cards or rectangular ones, since switching really doesn’t work. I found a larger range of sizes were available for rectangular cards.
I restricted myself to vaguely appropriate cards (no birthday cards unless it was their actual birthday that week), but it would have been a lot easier if I hadn’t followed that rule. Birthday cards seem to make up 75% of cards available. Occasionally I ended up buying an inappropriate card because the envelope was the right size, and then slipping a smaller card in.
The longest series of nested cards I ever managed to find was thirteen. For the fifteen week term I made envelopes myself and wrote on cut up squares of coloured paper.
Finding messages was comparatively easy, although time consuming. I took the approach of distributing the cards to family and friends, so each of them wrote one or two cards (I told them when the recipient would receive it). People were surprisingly keen to get involved, and very helpful.
For filling my letters, I wrote down each of the dates, then looked to see if I could find inspiration from one of the following:
- The published dates for their term — it might be their fresher’s week, or they could have a reading week. Maybe they will be packing up their things to come home, or preparing for exams.
- My diary — Perhaps I had a trip planned, or something else exciting coming up that I could talk about.
- The calendar — Perhaps there was something like Valentine’s Day or St Patrick’s Day approaching that I could share a memory from.
As much as I enjoyed putting the package together, I think my sisters enjoyed receiving them more. After the first time they weren’t a surprise, but I started getting gentle reminders about them as each of their turns came around.
They were generally disciplined about opening them. Although one sister told me she did start opening hers on a Saturday and another said she occasionally opened one early if she was having a bad week and needed some extra love, by and large they kept to the timetable.
It was a lot of work, but I think it was worth it. Years later my sisters still have some of the cards and letters they received. It’s an idea that generalises to any length of time that a loved one is away — the dates can be spaced however you like with as many or as few envelopes as you please. It doesn’t replace phone calls or emails or texts, or even letters written in the normal way, but it is a very nice addition to them.