`Just sit at the typewriter and tip-tap something out'

THE day I came home with the key to my new (to me) car, I found a letter from my mother in the mailbox. ``Don't,'' she urged, ``buy a second-hand car. You aren't a mechanic. Nor am I. Nor is Reg. Love, mother.''

Now if that isn't a fine example of the art of letter writing, I don't know what is.

Though it had taken the busy writer only a few seconds to jot down, it grabbed her correspondent's attention for quite a while. The first sentence got right down to business. Its advice was only too obvious. A little cogitation, helped by the knowledge that mother would always want to save my face, finally made the rest crystal clear: No owner of an elderly car can prosper without a flair for mechanics (oh how right she was). But she didn't want her poor estimate of my abilities to wound. So she hastened to admit her own unhandiness.

And if that wasn't enough, she assured me that even her favorite son-in-law, Reg, so nearly perfect in every other respect, was no great shakes at coping with a car's insides.

Mother didn't know she had mastered an art. She didn't recognize writing as an art at all. Any fool could do it. ``Just sit down at the typewriter and tip-tap something out,'' was a favorite piece of advice.

Her own writing involved hundreds of letters, since she and her three daughters always seemed to be in different countries. She was a professional woman, a rare breed in those days, and since she had no room in her schedule for organized writing, she had to improvise.

First the envelope would be stamped and addressed, then the letter composed while she was waiting for a bus or sitting under the hair dryer. Actually ``compose'' is not the right word. She just set down whatever came into her head -- producing a stream of consciousness that Virginia Woolf would have envied.

When the bus came or her hair dried (or she thought it had and began plucking out curlers to the dismay of her hairdresser), she stopped, popped the letter into the envelope and the envelope into the pillar box. No re-reading. Often no signature. Sometimes she broke off mid-sentence. A letter to me ended, ``The roads were icy and when I got home there was a lorry upside-down in our drive but''

Months later -- on a rare occasion when the whole family happened to be in one place -- I complained. ``I asked you three times about that lorry. What happened? You never told me.'' ``She told ME three times,'' said my elder sister.

Inspirational spelling was another strong point with Mother. ``Sales are down but prophets are up,'' she told me when her annual business report came out. And ``I think I need to tackle the problem from a fresh angel [angle].''

When she wrote to my cousin around Christmas time to tell him her house had been burgled (no harm done), he thought she had revived an ancient Warwick-shire custom. ``We had the buglers in,'' she announced.

``Don't tell me to look up words in the dictionary,'' she said to my aunt. ``If I can't spell them, how can I find them?''

Happily when it came to letter writing, though a poor mechanic, Mother was a fine artist.

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