I don’t believe in ghosts, but this year, without many people to talk to, I have found myself conversing with my grandmother, who died a decade ago.
I was a scaredy-cat as a kid, and I never fit in, but I was reassured by the promise of a wider world, with plenty of exciting hiding places, that my grandparents, unlike my parents, had already seen. The first time I left the country, my grandmother saw me to the double door of their central Tulsa home. By then, they were too old to travel, and when I turned to walk down the driveway, my grandmother said, as if in jest, but not in jest, “You know you’re leaving us to die alone!”
I didn’t leave them to die alone, of course. I did leave them often after that first trip. In the decade between my first departure and her final one, 2000-2010, I also sent them postcards. Whenever I’d stay somewhere for long enough, I’d receive postcards, too. Slowly but surely, I configured my adult self on the basis of those postcards, taking the polyhedral shape created by connections to interesting places in the world by way of the people I cared about, people who cared about me.
But 2020 scattered every bright spot in that inky constellation, leaving me alone. I don’t wish you were here, of course, I say to my grandmother. She answers me as best she can, that is, silently, in a jumble of old postcards in the holiday tin that is all I have left of her now.
All picture postcards feature certain qualities that unite them with each other — that make them postcards — while at the same time setting them apart from every other type of correspondence. These qualities are as essential to the postcard as tenacious love but also sarcasm (from Ancient Greek sarkazein, “to gnash the teeth, tear flesh”) were to my grandmother, and are to me. For now, for the purposes of both people and postcards, I won’t distinguish between qualities and flaws.
The postcard’s essential qualities (eight of which I’ve discovered so far) give rise to a diminutive rectangular whole that is hardy and delicate at once, dated and timeless, telltale and intimate, representative and not.
In other words, like words, which evolve and can hold opposing meanings, postcards are as contradictory as the people they connect.
It is apparently a paradox that the first essential qualities of postcards, brevity and exposure, are guarantors of closeness (despite separation), emblems of intimacy, each in its own way.
The postcard, which has the brevity of a tweet, a magnet or a bumper sticker, but which, unlike those other brief forms, is addressed to just one person, must embrace the trappings of a public display while at the same time rethinking and repurposing these trappings so that they arrive not as a display, but as an aura (from Latin via Greek, “breath” or “breeze”). This aura, subtle as the scent that formerly wafted through my LA neighborhood, which is blanketed with jasmine, tells the recipient of the postcard not only what the words say, but also what she, in all her contradictions, means — at least to the person who sent her the postcard.
Brevity is the postcard’s reason for being. When Heinrich von Stephan first proposed the notion of the postcard at the Austro-German Postal Conference of 1865, he pointed out that letters were prohibitively complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. In particular, he noted, letters are “not brief enough, because, if a letter be written, convention necessitates something more than the bare communication. This is irksome both to the sender and the receiver.”
Stephan likely intended the postcard for urgent messages such as, “Donald tested positive,” or, “Register to vote,” and it’s true that it did serve this purpose. “If convenient, meet me Friday,” reads the above postcard from 1910, embossed and gilded, never mailed, while the face of the clock on it instructs, “PLACE HANDS HERE TO SHOW TIME.” As Nancy Stiever notes, “In a period when as many as three mail deliveries a day allowed for a quick exchange of information, the postcard served daily communications as a precursor to the as yet less widespread telephone.” For people like Franz Kafka, for whom the telephone remained an unsettling and sometimes frightening experience, postcards were how to handle things like weekend plans.
But there is more to “bare communication” than updates and logistics and requests. Stephan was also advocating for a new technology that would have the power to reinvigorate human connection by laying bare the means. How might a correspondent make language naked, strip sentences of everything except their key words?
The exposure of the postcard has yielded postcard codes, as in “A.P.T.W.H.B.A.,” by Hildegarde Flanner, a California poet who lived from 1899 to 1987:
Tombstones needn’t be, but they are,
How about this? A message that is common
And just a mite of dynamite, too.
Chosen by my sister Janet to be used
On family post cards. It covered all that ever
Should be post card uttered, truthful and fond.
Designed for usual vacations, why not
For eternity, too, picnics and all?
It read, and I can show you on many cards
It covered our summering lives, and all the little Squally
Indian lakes we went to and
The pale wooden hotels smelling of citronella,
And the damp Sabbaths of Chattaqua concerts.
It covered life. Carve it on death. Let the rain wash it. Let the snow keep it clean.
A PLEASANT TIME WAS HAD BY ALL.
I wonder if my grandma read this poem ever. I know she would have liked it — it’s just her style, the summer lakes and concerts, the sensible application of postcard to tombstone. Trained as a nurse in the early 1940s, while my grandfather was a drummer in the South Pacific (until the Marines replaced him with Buddy Rich), my grandmother was always totally unfazed by death — hers, or anyone else’s.
The customary recipe for a modern picture postcard is: one-half image, one-quarter message, and one-quarter address, stamp, and postmark. This makes the postcard a chimerical creature, like a feathered lion or a fire-breathing goat with a serpentine tail. Each of its ingredients transmits a meaning. The meaning transmitted by its picturing face may be the same as or completely different from the meaning transmitted by the face that holds the note. For instance, a bucolic scene in the Pyrenees may be accompanied by the announcement of some disaster or failure to have fun. Some people even break up with their partners via postcard (it has happened to me); rarely do these postcards depict a demise.
Thus the postcard is necessarily two-faced, its ambiguous atmosphere giving rise to both aphorisms and clichés, to double entendres and even outright lies.
Postcards predicted in the 19th and 20th centuries the constructability of reality that would come to characterize our 21st century world, never more plainly so than now, in 2020. Edward Curtis, whose photographs of indigenous people made for particularly popular postcards of the United States, “enhanced the authenticity of his photographs by retouching traces of modern white culture (such as automobiles and alarm clocks) away.”
If it weren’t for the lure of art and artifice, we might not have destroyed our unenhanced environment, the only really authentic thing we ever had. We could have kept our now scorched forests, the pupfish, the parakeets, the auks. We could have resisted the genocides and the homogenization of all cultures into a single cropped and saturated still life.
“Another form of manipulating negatives,” writes Peter de Smet, “consisted of printing only a carefully selected part of the complete negative. This was sometimes done to remove white colonialists or native assistants from the picture, thereby creating the false illusion of a pristine native setting which had not yet been defiled by foreign oppressors.”
How many postcards purvey the illusion of not yet?
The picture on a postcard is a geograft, a scion of a place or a version of a place thrust into the life of a resident of elsewhere. The person on vacation perusing sidewalk racks must be careful to establish the compatibility of shoot and stock; more often than not, however, the relationship and understanding between sender and receiver will override any discord between foreign and domestic, rural and urban, flooded and parched.
The geograftedness of the postcard depends upon its serendipity (a word coined by the English writer Horace Walpole in a letter to a friend), the chance of its discovery in a particular location and the risky mystery of its arrival in another. The itinerary of a postcard is filled with fascinations, each completed leg of its progress a small miracle in itself. What it acquires on its way are creases, sometimes tears, almost always postmarks, and this evidence of its experience becomes a part of what it is.
Perhaps its identity is also shaped by the contact it comes into with notices, magazines, the occasional love letter, ever rarer, books wrapped in brown paper, bills, and I always wonder, as a postcard of mine wends from Tashkent to Tulsa, whose hands will hold it gently, and whose roughly, as they hurry it along.
Language is a little squeamish about touch. Something can be touching even it’s very far away; we only keep in touch when we are not together. Even when talking about closeness, words need space.
The Polish word for “touch,” “dotykać,” means both “come into contact” and “make someone upset.” “Touché,” from the French word for touch, acknowledges a hit. To tuck something away, as people often do with postcards, currently means to put something somewhere where it will stay safe, but “tuck” also comes from “toucher,” and at first it meant “torment.”
Perhaps “touch” is a form of “bare communication,” a key word because it opens doors to many kinds of feeling.
“She had tremendous strength of character and taught her children the value of remaining true to one’s beliefs,” my mother wrote in my grandmother’s obituary. “Una touched so many and never fully realized how much she was loved and how much she will be missed.”
A month passed between when I wrote the above awestruck postcard (Red Square and dance clubs!) and when my grandmother dutifully recorded its receipt. In that time its cardboard peeled for some reason, and I returned home. I would have walked back up their driveway then, and rung their dingy bell. When she came to the door, I would have held my grandma’s fragile little body, felt her gnarled stained hands around my waist.
It’s very difficult to travel in 2020, but visiting grandparents is all but impossible. No one is allowed into nursing homes, and many die alone. Those who survive go for months without touch, with no one to hug them, and almost no postcards for them to tuck away.
During my grandmother’s lifetime, I didn’t know about the tin. After she died, I began to add to her collection, contributing new old postcards I would buy at the Sunday swap meet that used to take place across the street from me. The tin has no fixed position in my apartment, roving from the bedroom to the living room to the kitchen and back.
I wonder where she kept it. I wonder if it wound up near my grandfather’s ashes, on the table by her twin-sized bed.
“Egalitarian is the vital word concerning postcards,” writes Jeremy Cooper, and it has always been this way. Heinrich von Stephan stipulated in his initial proposal that the “charge for postage should be fixed as low as possible, say about 1 silver groschen, irrespective of the distance the form is conveyed.” Yet Stephan’s ideas were rightly deemed radical, and at first, his motion was denied.
The postcard collage can be camp, or it can be political. During the First World War, George Grosz and John Heartfield made photomontages to send protest messages to the front that couldn’t be intercepted by censors, who only analyzed text. Later, in the Polish People’s Republic, the poet Wisława Szymborska used similar techniques to reach her friends, supplementing the four children of a Portrait of Anthony Reyniers and His Family reproduction postcard with a cartoon cat dressed up like an infanta. In fact, Szymborska used similar techniques in her poetry: “Hitler’s First Photograph” juxtaposes “howling dogs” and “fate’s footsteps” with “tummy full of milk” and “mommy’s sunshine.”
I sign up for Postcards to Voters and make the above postcard out of an old National Geographic and someone else’s postcard, purchased at the old Sunday swap meet. I regret the books and love the vinyl. I want a postcard that reflects, that will hold my face and these palm trees, along with the face of the person who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, 40291, and her home.
Postcards have done well in eras of upheaval. “In the early 1900s,” Tobie Mathew writes of Russia, “opponents of the Tsar came up with an ingenious new way to beat censorship and spread a message of defiance — picture postcards.” In 1910, the National American Woman Suffrage Association launched a postcard-writing campaign. Sets of postcards tried to capture Adolf Hitler’s scowl- and fist-inflected speeches for a German public eager for a share in his charisma.
From the beginning, the power of postcards was harnessed to advance national and imperial interests by propagating stereotypes, from French-made cards showing “primitive, mysterious” Algerians or vilifying Dreyfus to Israeli-made cards featuring the “tough Jew” and the “less rooted” Bedouin; throughout the 20th century, “postcards created a productive tension between the public and the personal, forging a connection with the individual that other propaganda media could not.” The tuckability of the postcard has always made it linger better than a billboard or a radio ad, or even an email.
People were created out of dust or clay, according to many traditions, and yet in none of them is clay alone enough to make a person; some force is always needed to breathe life into figures otherwise inert.
The minimal contents of the message on a postcard rely upon past interactions to bring them to life; whenever I sent my grandmother a postcard, every word I wrote evoked some memory of childhood, and in my mind I’d always hear how she’d pronounce the same words differently, with her raspy voice and smoker’s cough, so that even the simplest sentence — “Moscow really is beautiful” — swells to symphonic proportions, incorporating many of the sights and sounds of our long history.
Postcards are made possible by inspiration (from Latin in-, “into,” spirare, “breathe”) drawn from a prior closeness that is capable of overcoming the gap in space between the postcard’s origin and its destination, as well as the gap in time between its writing (from one person’s present into another person’s future) and its reading (from the other person’s present into the first person’s past).
It may be that the closer I am to someone, the less need we have for words at all. In such cases, the only moment in the message that matters is the last: the sender’s signature, with its familiar open spaces, its beloved curves.
The postcard seems to be a reproduction, not a work of art.
Yet the postcard is also a hybrid between a reproduction and an original, like a facing-page edition of translated poems. While the postcard is widely considered ephemeral, it’s durable enough to travel across oceans and continents and survive. It doesn’t have a Here and Now like a painting or a sculpture; instead, it has two Heres and two Nows, that of the sender and that of the receiver, who might also come across a postcard again 20 years later, tucked inside a book, and its sight will restore that first Now, when she stood by the mailbox scrutinizing, holding it close, and the penmanship of a friend who’s been gone a long time will now bring back his voice. In this way, the postcard’s two Nows may produce a kaleidoscope of Heres.
The postcard may cause immunity to certain places — Las Vegas, Paris, Tokyo — while also forging new notions of nationhood or shared revolutionary struggle. Its inherent tendency toward the ridiculous strengthens our reaction and connection to the postcard — since what is more human than weakness made risible, vulnerability we’re assured is okay?
So the postcard is essentially a brief, exposed, hybrid, serendipitous, tuckable, kitsch, and revolutionary geograft.
Perhaps all souvenirs are haunted; perhaps nostalgia is the ghost story we tell ourselves to make our drifting, irreversible lives feel less lost and less lonely, despite knowing that our place of origin is always necessarily gone.
The last day my grandma was alive, she said, “I’m sorry I’m dying.” I said, “That’s okay.”
I made this album essay for you, I say to my grandmother now. I wanted to say how much I miss you. There is a silence, but there is also the weight and happy wornness of our postcards, postcards that have been around the vibrant, disappearing world.
All the images in this piece are photographs taken by the author of postcards from her tin.
All etymologies and definitions are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary online.
irksome both to the sender and the receiver: Staff, Frank. The Picture Postcard & Its Origins (New York: Frederick A. Praeger), 1966, 44.
a precursor to the as yet less widespread telephone: Stiever, Nancy. “Postcards and the Invention of Old Amsterdam Around 1900.” Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity. Eds. Jordana Mendelson and David Prochaska (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 25.
how to handle weekend plans: Stach, Reiner. Kafka: The Decisive Years. Translated from German by Shelley Frisch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 154.
A PLEASANT TIME WAS HAD BY ALL: Flanner, Hildegarde. Poems: Collected & Selected (Daniel & Daniel Publishers, McKinleyville, CA, 2004), 12.
enhanced the authenticity: De Smet, Peter A.G.M. Different Truths: Ethnomedicine in Early Postcards (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2010), 39.
defiled by foreign oppressors: ibid.
Horace Walpole in a letter to a friend: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/happy-birthday-serendipity
the vital word concerning postcards: Cooper, Jeremy. The World Exists to Be Put on a Postcard: Artists’ postcards from 1960 to now (London: Thames & Hudson, 2019), 8.
irrespective of the distance the form is conveyed: Staff, 45.
a message of defiance—picture postcards: https://www.tobiemathew.co.uk/new-page
the National American Woman Suffrage Association launched a postcard-writing campaign: https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_508199
Adolf Hitler’s scowl- and fist-inflected speeches: Jozefacka, Anna, and Lynda Klich, Juliana Kreinik, and Benjamin Weiss. The Propaganda Front: Postcards from the Era of World Wars (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017), 126.
“primitive, mysterious” Algerians: DeRoo, Rebecca J. “Colonial Collecting: French Women and Algerian Cartes Postales.” Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity. Eds. Jordana Mendelson and David Prochaska (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 86.
vilifying Dreyfus: Jozefacka, 28-9.
tough Jew: Moors, Annelies. “Presenting People: The Politics of Picture Postcards of Palestine/Israel.” Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity. Eds. Jordana Mendelson and David Prochaska (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 101.
Bedouin: Moors, 102.
other propaganda media could not: Jozefacka, 17.
censors, who only analyzed text: Zervigón, Andrés Mario. “Postcards from the Front: John Heartfield, George Grosz, and the Birth of Avant-Garde Photomontage.” Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity. Eds. Jordana Mendelson and David Prochaska (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 55.
a cartoon cat dressed up like an infanta: https://mnk.pl/fotogalerie/wyklejanki-wislawy-szymborskiej
mommy’s sunshine: Szymborska, Wisława. Map: Collected and Last Poems. Translated by Clare Cavanagh (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), 254.
Jennifer Croft is a writer and translator. She is the author Homesick (Unnamed Press, 2019), which was originally written in Spanish and will be published in Argentina as Serpientes y escaleras in 2021. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, n+1, BOMB, VICE, Guernica, Electric Literature,Lit Hub, The New Republic, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere.