A friend recommended the book, “Staying on Alone,” the collected letters of Alice B. Toklas, written after the death of Gertrude Stein. The letters begin in 1946, the day Stein died, and continue until 1966. Toklas’s correspondence to friends, editors, and those involved in the literary and artistic world reveal much about life in Paris after WWII.
However, what I enjoyed most about this book were the small domestic details about living there –the shortages after the war, the cold, trips to the vet (their beloved poodle, Basket was getting old), and entertaining a steady stream of guests. She even shares recipes. Her well-known cookbook is a delight.
Letters reveal so much about the person writing them. More than the voice of a “literary persona”, I heard Toklas’s actual voice. She felt like a friend. There is something so intimate, so immediate about a letter. Toklas addresses some friends as, “Dearest Kiddies,” to others she signs off as “Mama Woojums,” and she refers to Gertrude Stein as, “Baby.” The nicknames make you feel like part of her inner circle.
I have always loved letters. My mother wrote to me every Sunday when I went away to school. I still have all the letters she wrote weekly to my grandmother when my family moved to Switzerland. Opening one now, many years later, the pale blue airmail envelope crinkling between my fingers and seeing the ink from her fountain pen, brings my mother back to life.
As you can see from the attached photograph, my grandchildren are starting to write letters. I will save their letters, too.
Texts and email don’t come close. A letter is a true gift, a gift of your self.