The hand written note

One of my lovely clients had a wonderful idea for her youngest daughter’s first birthday – I asked her to write about the inspiration behind it.

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As someone who was born in the early 80s, I’m part of a generation of people who spent their childhood hand writing everything. My school friends and I would pass handwritten notes to each other sneakily in class about what we were going to play at break time, and I’m pretty sure it was in one of these handwritten, scrunched up balls of paper that I received my first marriage proposal, age 8.

We all wrote in little lockable diaries and we kept the key on a necklace around our neck. Birthday cards were always filled with long messages written neatly with that special pen and in my teens, each friend who visited my house, was invited to contribute to my bedroom door which was covered in messages from friends, poems, a personalised graffiti “tag” from my then boyfriend and lyrics to Nirvana songs…

I was fortunate enough to attend an international school in London and because most of the students there had family abroad, my friends and I had the privilege of going away for our long 8 week summer holidays. We would write letters and postcards to each other practically daily. I can still remember my friend Danielle’s summerhouse address, in Frejus in the South of France, off by heart. We would write to each other about boys and summer crushes and lazy days in the sun on the beach and fishing trips and boat trips and swimming in the sea and how tanned we were….

In fact I was recently reminded of a letter I wrote about how my cousin Marie and I, both aged 14 at the time, sneaked out of our great great grandma’s house in a small village in Corsica at night, to meet our friend Antonia who was waiting outside. Antonia wheeled us all downhill to the beach on her moped (ignition off so the engine noise wouldn’t wake the whole village up!). We were clutching a guitar and trying to hold on for dear life while trying not to scream the entire way down. On the beach, we sat around a fire singing Beatles songs before the obligatory skinny dip in the sea to spot the glow in the dark plankton under water. I’m so glad someone reminded me of that letter…

However, the most life changing handwritten message came when I was just 11. My mum took her own life very unexpectedly a few weeks before her 35th birthday and while looking through my Forever Friends weekly planner a few days after her death, under my note “Maman’s birthday” she had written in turquoise ink “Je t’aimerai toujours et encore” (I will love you forever and more). That was the point at which I began striving to capture memories so they were never forgotten or lost.

Fast forward to the 4th May 2008, I was 25 and it was my wedding day. We asked my half sister and my brother to take a Polaroid photo of every guest. Then they stuck them all in a guest book and the guests were asked to write a message underneath. The morning after our wedding, my new husband and I read through the messages over a cup of tea in bed in our hotel room and it was the best gift of all. In fact we recently looked through it all again, in light of us celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary this year.

A year later, to mark our first wedding anniversary (the paper one), I gifted my husband with a Sapphire wedding anniversary card. I told him I knew we would be together forever and I asked him to write a message for me in that card on every wedding anniversary for the next 44 years.

A few weeks after our 1st wedding anniversary, our first daughter was born and when she was just a few months old, while giving baby her last feed of the day, I noticed little eyebrows had appeared on her face. I remember realising at that point just how quickly everything was flying by and I was desperate to hold onto every little smell, memory and detail. I also wanted my precious baby to have a record of my unconditional love for her and our strong bond. When I became a mother I felt my own mother’s absence even more and I had so many questions I would have loved to ask her…. So, I bought a lovely little hardback notebook and I started writing to my baby while I breastfed her in her room in the evenings (this worked best when feeding her on the left as I am right-handed!). I kept this up even after she was weaned. It was not every day and not always at the same time but I wrote about important milestones like her first word, the first time she said “je t’aime Maman”, our first ever trip to a&e, the day we brought her baby sister home and her first day at preschool and primary school. Sometimes it’s just a line or two but I hope to give her this book as a gift when she becomes a mama or if the unthinkable were to happen to me, then at least my record of love is there; handwritten and raw and straight from the heart.

When I found out I was expecting my second baby and my third baby, it was such a pleasure to go out and buy a notebook for them. It became a bit of a pregnancy ritual and it was wonderful to be able to write a letter to them with an account of their birth in their books while it was still so fresh in my mind and body.

My fourth pregnancy however, came as a very big shock to my husband and I. I was on the pill, we were 4 days away from moving into a new house when I found out and I had probably done everything I would not have done had I known I was in the early stages of pregnancy (exercise classes which involved lifting heavy weights, strong yoga poses, nights out drinking, carrying boxes for the move, not taking any vitamin supplements or folic acid…oh and still taking my contraceptive pill!). I had an early private scan, to check baby was healthy, which I had to go to on my own, and of course as soon as I saw the baby wriggling on the screen I cried and cried and cried some more. All my fears about how I could possibly love and care for 4 little ones under 7 went out of the window during the time I watched our new family member on that screen while the lovely midwife held my hand tightly. That autumn, Constance Margot was born on the bathroom floor of our new house, instantly making it our home. As my husband looked at his newest daughter properly for the first time while she lay peacefully on our bed, he said: “ Ahhh, you’re just one of our babies aren’t you?”. And just like that we went from a perfect 5 to a formidable 6. It was at that moment that I vowed to make sure that our little fourth born would always know just how loved she is and how wanted she was.

Shortly after Constance was born, I saw an article on Facebook about a family in the States who had done something very special on their daughter’s 1st birthday. Instantly I knew that was what I wanted to do for Constance. I sent out invitations for an intimate party at home and I requested that nobody bought any gifts but that they bring a sealed letter instead.

Dearest family and friends,

With Constance’s party just a week away we wanted to tell you a bit more about the inspiration behind the letter idea for Constance. We have already received a couple of letters from far away friends and it feels very exciting not knowing what they say!

It’s no secret that our fourth little gift was a complete shock but now we are keen to make her know just how precious she is and we want her to feel “arms full of love” around her forever. Last year, I saw the (…) video about a girl whose family had kept letters written to her on her 1st birthday and presented them to her on her 18th birthday. Life is so unpredictable and I would have loved to have been given such a letter on my 18th birthday from my mum who passed away when I was just 11.

I hope that in doing this we can not only do something completely unique for Constance and give her something which our other babies do not have, but also capture the huge amount of love and celebration which has surrounded us and her, since she has joined our family.

I contacted Claire Witz of Qalbi art (https://www.qalbi.co.uk/), as I knew she was the only person in the world who would make the perfect keepsake box to house all these special letters for the next 17 years. As usual Claire did not fail to deliver; it always feels like she can see the image in my head while she paints my orders.

The very lovely and wonderfully talented Janet Penny of Hushabye photography (https://hushabye-photography.co.uk/) has photographed all our children and captured so many special memories that naturally I invited her to join us at this party and photograph it all (I also booked Janet for the 11th October 2034 to capture the unveiling ceremony of the box of course!). It really was a very special and memorable day and Constance’s 18th birthday box is full to the brim with sealed letters, cards and wrapped gifts bursting with love. I know this because of the look on loved ones faces as I watched them post them into her box.

Things have changed so much since my childhood memories of little handwritten notes and letters…We text people for every single occasion, we even need emojis now to clarify our words or as a shortcut to highlight our tone and we send emails rather than letters and cards. However, I love the fact that even long after I’ve gone, my children will have handwritten keepsakes of my unconditional, never-ending love for them and a record of the emotions I felt while watching them through the camera lense of my IPhone.