Poignant postcards

A postcard showing the outside courts at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club

Do you still send postcards when you’re away? Does anyone really send them anymore?

I know I do, but I’m just one person. And isn’t it just so much easier to reach for the smart phone…

A cursory google search for stats on modern postcard habits didn’t bring up a major Post Office survey or anything, but it did introduce me to this project: Postcrossing.

Their goal is to allow anyone to send and receive postcards around the world. ‘For each postcard you send, you will receive one back from a random Postcrosser around the world’, they say.

My initial reaction (which may not be yours, but I’m hopeful) was, ‘Woah, how have I not done this before?!’ So that’s one activity sorted for me this week — which incidentally, folks, marks seven weeks until World Postcard Day on 1st October.

Back to my search for stats, Postcrossing does have lots of interesting information about countries who send the most via their project (1: Germany 2: USA 3: Russia – the UK is in 7th) and how many postcards they’ve recorded being sent by Postcrossers during the pandemic compared to previous years.

Spoiler: the trend is that we’ve all sent fewer, which means we’ve received fewer.

Postcards mean a lot to me.

And they’ve been on my mind a lot recently for the same reason I haven’t posted on here for some time. My father.

My dad, Roy Crowther, passed away on Sunday 4th July aged 73. Losing a close loved one is tough at any time in history, but losing them during a pandemic is an experience you’ve just got to hope many others won’t have to go through. I say that even though we are incredibly fortunate to have gotten to spend around a day with him in person just before the end, when many others over the past year have had to say their goodbyes through Zoom, or not at all.

While I get the postcard collecting / hoarding passion from my mum, the reason postcards have come to mean so much to me in the past few years is down to my dad.

We’re a family who all enjoy travelling, and when my dad’s mobility decreased and he stopped being able to get away, I felt guilty. Particularly as it coincided with a very busy period of travel in my life, as I sought to discover what was outside Europe and Northern Africa.

As we all grappled with the change in dad’s circumstances, first being tested for Alzheimer’s, then being diagnosed with prostate cancer, something snapped in my mind and I said to myself that the one thing I could do at least, beyond calling, beyond visiting when I was in Somerset, was send Dad a postcard from each place I visited, or revisited.

I postcard bought during a tour of the Houses of Parliament
One of my abiding memories of my dad was his and his twin brother David’s switched on wit and humour around politics. They would call each other up regularly over the years to laugh (and make each other laugh) over the latest gaffes. I sent this postcard after a Houses of Parliament tour: ‘We spotted the polished Churchill statue shoe [that everyone touches for good luck] and I caught a couple stealing envelopes from the Speaker’s table. The policeman on duty had disappeared so I had to perform a Citizen’s Arrest!’

I felt a much stronger connection to dad just by committing to this one quite small action. He received a cork board and some pins too so that the postcards wouldn’t just sit in a pile in a Welsh dresser drawer. I hoped they would pique his interest whenever he glanced over them.

A postcard from Porto in Portugal
‘Olá Dad, tidings from Porto! First impressions very good… day two we made it into the church of São Francisco, the interior is covered in 100kg gold leaf!… day three we went for a Port making tour at Taylor’s, drinking white and red Ports to the sounds of live Spanish [Portuguese] guitar in their rose gardens – bliss!’

In the past few years, as my father’s short term memory faded ever faster, as he struggled and stuttered to tell us what was on his mind, what he thought of what he was watching, or what he could still remember of his upbringing, I knew the postcards were still worth it — however brief a flicker of interest or memory they might arouse.

I would seek out special stamps if I could, tried to buy the brightest, most cheeriest, often most touristy artwork that I could find.

The most ‘New York’ New York postcard I could find, featuring ‘iconic scenes and landmarks’
‘Hey Dad! I’m writing this to you from subway train J… it’s been an incredibly hot day. Annabelle and I explored The Met (five Vermeers and a whole Rembrandt room!!)… we’ve eaten very well — bagels [with] a ‘schmear’ [of cream cheese], pies, burgers, doughnuts, noodles, sushi, a real mix. One of the highlights has to be the Katz Deli pastrami sandwich’
A postcard sent at the end of a flying visit to Hong Kong, showing the famous tram
The postcard that nearly caused me to miss a flight…. I spent a day and a night in Hong Kong en route to Japan from London (pretty much awake for two days straight). I bought this postcard and a stamp at my first destination, the famous Victoria Peak, but I couldn’t find a postbox anywhere. I traipsed around HK airport looking everywhere for one, unaware final boarding was being announced. Thankfully I found one and promptly legged it onboard.

One trip I made in May 2018 that didn’t require a postcard was Amsterdam — because we took Dad in his wheelchair on the new Eurostar service there. He could still walk a little at that time, and would constantly say he didn’t need the chair, but I imagine it wasn’t so bad getting pushed around such a beautiful city. It certainly exercised our upper arms.

Dad in an art gallery in Amsterdam
Dad may not have read every caption as he used to, but he loved being back in museums and galleries again.

When dad moved to his nursing home, thankfully just up the road from his house, the postcard posting stopped for a bit. That’s because I tried to visit as much as possible, or brought him things in person.

Still, when I did send postcards, I continued to hope to kindle and stir in my father’s mind some curiosity and interest. It didn’t matter if dad usually needed someone to read postcards to him by now, so long as he wanted it read to him.

A paint your own postcard
We brought back some ‘paint your own’ postcards from our trip to Canada & Alaska. We painted them in person with Dad, though I can’t claim it’s my best work…

Pandemic be damned.

Like many people with relatives in nursing homes around the world, the fear I felt about the rising number of cases and spiralling seriousness of infections, before and after the first lockdown was announced in the UK, meant a constant dread present in the pit of my stomach.

To begin with, I was convinced that dad’s nursing home would have an outbreak early on, and panicked with every phone call that came in on the house phone, expecting to be told dad had Covid.

A happy birthday card for Dad on his first of two pandemic birthdays
Bright and cheery always the order of the day, for the first of Dad’s two pandemic birthdays, 14th May 2020.

In the end, we had geography on our side, as Somerset had – and has – some of the lowest case numbers in England, if not the UK. The nursing home did have an outbreak earlier this year, by which time almost everyone was double jabbed. The outbreak sadly led to one death, but it’s a testament to how brilliant vaccines are in saving lives that it wasn’t far more serious.

Over the past 15-16 months, dealing with this anxiety but not going anywhere new, I sent fewer postcards and more homemade cards, but all with increasing regularity. It became a weekly ritual to make a cheery card if I had time, or root around my shoebox collections for a suitable postcard to send along with a TV paper.

A postcard I sent in April 2020 along with a TV paper, while I was recovering from Covid, which then turned into Long Covid. We worried at the time about virus particles carrying on gifts, but everything was quarantined on arrival out of caution. ‘Coronavirus has been unpleasant but I’m beating it!… we have played some board games that have transported us to France, Turkey, Malta and elsewhere. Hope you’re ok and getting to watch some Dad’s Army!’

I’m pretty sure dad was often more excited about the TV paper that would accompany postcards or cards, but the home’s wonderful activities nurse Roberta would diligently make an event each week out of reading what I’d written, showing dad the artwork or the pictures, making sure he knew it was from me, from us.

It was hard knowing my dad was starting to edge closer to the end, but I was willing him to still take in what was being written and relayed to him, I did my hardest to make him laugh or smile on video calls, and made sure his favourite programmes were being put on. But I knew that what once would have elicited such hearty, infectious laughter, even just before the pandemic began, would have a tougher job doing so now.

But all along we knew it was so important not to let Dad go too long without contact from outside of some kind, to fight the extra deterioration that came from visits not being allowed, and less face to face contact.

My father, Roy Crowther, by the patio of his nursing home.
One of my favourite photos of my Dad, taken in August 2020. In person visits were allowed again in the garden and Dad enjoyed seeing us enormously. The following week, he went into hospital with pneumonia and I thought that his time was up, but he bounced back!

We didn’t take our decision to go to Scotland for a few weeks in September last year lightly — particularly as dad had been ill the month before. I turned to postcards again, sending more than one a week while away. Guilt was definitely in there as a motivating factor, but we weren’t allowed to see dad in person anyway at the time, so we figured we might as well change our backdrop for a bit and show dad the world outside Somerset again.

A selection of postcards from Cairngorms, Culloden and surrounds.
A selection of postcards from Shetland, Skye and The Hebrides

In mid to late June this year, with Dad in and out of hospital fighting nasty infections and viruses (but not Covid it seemed), I still clung to the hope that it didn’t have to mean the end.

I told doctors and end of life nurses at his hospital, and carers and nurses at his nursing home that we’d been here before when it looked bleak for dad, and he’d almost miraculously bounced back then.

On 2nd July, at Wimbledon and on my way with my brother to find our Centre Court seats (to see Brits Dan Evans and Andy Murray lose), I popped to the till in one of the shops and purchased two postcards. One for dad (pictured at the top) and one for me.

It was the last postcard I got for my dad, one that he sadly didn’t get to receive.

He did receive one last postcard in the days before he died though. You see, I wasn’t the only poster of postcards….

A postcard from the beach at Eastbourne
Dad’s identical twin brother David also sent many postcards and cards to Dad over the years. This last one arrived just a few days before Dad died.

Whether postcards are the preserve of the past or not, they strengthened the bond I shared with my dad, and no doubt my uncle feels the same.

I’ll have fewer to post when I’m next on my travels, but that won’t stop me spinning those card carousels, readying my biro and sticking down the stamps.

Who’s going to join me?

Published by Kateonhertravels

An insatiable appetite for travel.

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