07 July 2024

More than One Way to Creatively Write

A few days ago on the 1st of July, Chris Knopf wrote about writing letters. The essay reminded me of my mother.

Historically, we know many male writers through their books and novels, but only a few women writers. We can, however, study a number of women of yesteryear through their correspondence. My mother, Hillis, followed in that tradition. She was an inveterate letter writer.

And she would write anyone, sometimes asking questions, often asserting a strong opinion. Occasionally a public figure received a note with a schoolteacher rebuke. I imagined the recipient gulping and mumbling, “Yes, ma’am.”

When I graduated high school, I received a congratulatory letter from the state’s governor. In one missive, Mom mentioned in passing I would be graduating, and somebody picked up on it.

She contributed trivia questions to a radio quiz show, and after a while, the show’s host began to reach out to her. On occasion when Mom visited the city, she’d chat with the show’s presenter prior to lunchtime.

Once after bidding him goodbye, Mom steered her kid (me) down the street where she came across a panhandler in front of a coffee shop. The man looked distressed. Mom said, “Let’s go inside and I’ll treat you to lunch.”

“I can’t,” said the derelict. “They won’t let me in.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Won’t they? We shall see about that.”

Uh-oh. My mother was barely five feet tall standing on a phonebook, but Dear God, she was fierce.

She took him by the elbow and ushered him inside. Immediately the staff said, “He has no money to pay. He has to leave.”

The cheeky waiter was fortunate Mom didn’t haul off and slap him in the kneecap. Mom pretended not to hear him.

“Young man, you will bring us salad, ham and turkey sandwiches, and coffee, thank you.”

Across the restaurant, spoons and forks hung in mid-air. Cups suspended before reaching the lip. All eyes turned on a server facing off against a munchkin who looked like she could devour him for lunch.

“But ma’am…” The waiter saw a steely flicker in Mom’s eyes that couldn’t be broached, a glint suggesting his continued good health might come into question. “Y-Yes ma’am. W-Will you be having dessert?”

Postal Cards versus Post Cards

As proficient as she was catching the ears of movers and shakers, Hillis was locally known for her postal cards. Postal cards and post cards are different. Postal cards refers to official US Postal Service cards, typically manilla-colored rectangles with no illustration other than guides for the address. They come pre-stamped, postage paid. Post cards, aka picture postcards, are common commercial cards, often a bit larger than postal cards. They require separately purchased postage.

One other thing– The Post Office offered for sale official USPS uncut ‘penny postal cards’. Firms could buy sheets of cards, print their message, promotion, or advertisement on the backs, and then cut them to size.

picture post card   official postal card
picture post card   official postal card

Project Manager

Mom didn’t so much have hobbies, but rather projects. Hobbies are done for sheer enjoyment, the journey not the destination. Projects have a goal, a destination.

Dad was well aware of Mom’s projects, so when he came across hundreds of sheets of postal cards to be discarded, he asked for them. The printing on the back was no longer accurate, but the postage on the cards was still valid.

Dad presented them to Mom and she was gleeful. Sheet by sheet, she laid them face down on her work table. She rolled adhesive over their backs, and then fitted sheets of white paper over the preprinted card backs, and finally, with a paper cutter snipped them to size. Mom now had many hundreds of official, paid postal cards or, as Dad might say, a week’s supply.

Then Came the Fun

Mom’s handwriting was compact and efficient, if not particularly feminine. She could pack three quarters of Shakespeare ’s Hamlet on the back of a newly minted card, flip it over and sideways, and fill the right half of the face of the card. It turns out as long as she left three inches on the right for an address, she could do whatever the hell she wanted with the rest of the card. Mother could do things with cards no one thought possible.

The local postmaster admitted he enjoyed reading Mom’s cards. Mom pretended offense. Although privately pleased, she gently reminded the man he shouldn’t read private mail.

The Queen of Cards

Mother made special cards for children in hospitals. Using her famous blue-black ink, she’d start lettering a message along the edge of a card, writing a note to the child in a spiral, requiring the victim, er, recipient to turn and turn the card to read the note.

Sometimes, she’d purchase stickers or clip tiny pictures from magazines to decorate her cards. Occasionally she’d integrate pictures into the message itself. She experimented with lemon-juice invisible ink, but her most innovative cards bore no written message at all.

A child who might be hospitalized for sometime might receive an envelope from Mom containing needle, thread, and a brief note, instructing the recipient to retain the needle and thread. Every few days thereafter, a postal card would arrive with no writing other than tiny numbers and dots in the message area. Yep, Mom’s get-well postal card was a connect-the-dots picture puzzle solved with needle and thread.

spiraling message   connect-the-dots
spiraling message   connect-the-dots

T’was a sad day many years later, when Mother used her last card. By then, I was an adult. (Stop sniggering!) By then, many around the country and especially our counties had benefitted from Mom’s postal cards. That last card marked the end of a writing legacy.


  1. This is O’Neil
    Leigh, Hope I can get this comment through. Nice post. Really enjoyed it. Reminds me of my paternal grandmother, a formidable Cajun lady.

    1. Thanks, O'Neil. There must be a shared DNA among our women, bless them.

  2. Loved your post. After my father died, my mother moved back to her hometown in Pennsylvania and went back to the church she grew up in. On her own, she began writing letters to people who couldn't attend the church, her mission, as my cousin called it. She must have written thousands of letters in her lifetime. I love getting letters, though sadly, that's far less common now.

    1. Thank you, Tom. That's amazing. I wonder if her church has a collection of them?

  3. Your mother sounds like a real delight to me!

    1. Eve, oddly enough, she didn't appreciate her own creativity. She though my aunts had a corner on the market, but she didn't grasp her own abilities.


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