The Power of a Pen Pal
Having a pen pal is a rite of passage for most kids born before the age of the internet—you know, when communicating with people across the continent was kind of a big deal. I remember we got assigned pen pals in elementary school, and I can’t tell you for the life of me who mine was. I am, and remain, a very terrible pen pal.
With one exception.
My great Aunt C has lived in Northern California all my adult life, but in the 80s and 90s she traveled the world with her husband. Over the years she sent me postcards from Venice, from Bali, from China, telling me of the sights and sounds and expressing how important it was for me to travel.
It must have been knowing, and coveting, that freedom that inspired me to reach out to her like I did. I was twelve, and overwhelmed with absolute, crippling misery. The kind of crippling misery that only twelve-year-olds are capable of. We had just moved to Hatfield, Massachusetts, a small town outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, that often didn’t show up on maps. Where I’d been in middle school, I was unceremoniously tossed back into elementary school in Hatfield, since sixth grade resided there.
I also left my best friend, Hilary—who was pretty much the only person in the world who got me—and didn’t fit in with anyone at school. Since I did all my growing at 11, I was approximately the same height I am now, so I was mistaken for a teacher more than once.
I went on and on in my letter to C about how horrible my life was. My grandmother (her sister) and I were never very close, and I didn’t expect she’d understand.
But Aunt C understood.
A few weeks after I wrote to her about my plight, which was clearly the worst plight in the history of plights, she wrote to tell me that she, too, understood not fitting in. That when she was growing up in the Midwest, she felt terribly alone. But there was an answer—there was a bit of magic—because not all was lost.
Read, she told me. Read, and you can go anywhere in the world.
I did. I read so much that I started to write. I couldn’t help it. All those worlds, those adventures, those people I met, they welled up inside of me and had to be let out into the world… changed a little (or hey, not at all, sorry Stephen King). It was Aunt C’s advice that changed me, that shaped me, that gave me hope. No one had ever respected my plight, had acknowledged how difficult it was for me. Everyone else had always said: “Oh, you’ll get through it,” or, “It’s tough for everyone.” There was so much unexpected power in being given permission to suffer and simultaneously granted a way out that was actually useful advice. No, “Try making new friends,” or, “Join a club,” or, “Get a new hobby”—this charge, to read, was the greatest I’d ever been given.
Then, as kids do, I became a teenager. I stopped writing as often, then stopped at all. By the time I was a college student, my days of writing to C came to an end for a while (though she did provide me with the funding to get my first computer). We saw each other on and off, mostly at a funeral or two, but it wasn’t until I went out to San Francisco about seven years ago that we started up our correspondence again, this time in email, after my son was born and not long after her husband died (Liam was born the same weekend her husband passed away).
Picking up the Threads
So it was that from 2007-2013 we wrote back and forth dozens of times, and I visited as often as I could. But in the middle of that, she fell ill. Cancer, for a second time. And things changed. After adventuring in Chinatown together in 2007—she was in her early 80s during my first visit as an adult—her life changed forever. The cancer, and its constant pain, left her much depleted. Her enthusiasm for communication dwindled.
It has not gotten better. Computers have become strange to her, her memory erratic, her handwriting unreliable. When I went to visit her last, my heart broke to see her change so. She had always seemed so ageless to me, a beauty who never knew her beauty, a bookworm who never saw her worth, but a woman who lived life with vivacity in spite of that all.
I call her when I can. And visit her when I can. Every time I visit her she sends me home with books, more books. I take them because I know it’s the richest give she can give. Most recently it was a collection of Rumi’s poems and a biography of our favorite potter, Maria Martinez (what are the odds, right?). But there are no more letters, and we’re an entire continent apart. There are conversations—she worries about my son Liam, who has high functioning autism, a great deal—but we fall into the same patterns again and again. While I visited her most recently, the conversation we’d had ten minutes before evaporated, and we repeated it again. Then again. I realized for the first time that the sharp, ebullient woman I know is fading away.
But not all. As we sat together a few weeks ago listening to the blessed rain, she leaned over to me and asked, “Do you remember that letter I wrote you? After you told me about school in Massachusetts and you hated it so much? I told you to read, do you remember that?”
I told her I remembered; I remember it every day. Twenty years have passed, but those words, they’re still there, still inside of me. I don’t know where that original letter is for the life of me, but it doesn’t matter. I can still see her neat typing on the page: READ. READ. The words are so clear they might as well be tattooed on my skin.
Words Left Behind
Our email correspondences are treasures to me now, as I prepare to watch her slip away again. I was a busy new mom when we first started writing again, but her joy and beauty and love always shone through. Across a whole continent, from California to North Carolina, it strikes me as still being astonishing. Letters like these are absolute treasures to me now.
I shall make note to find your book on the Vikings, etc. They made it as far as Istanbul, I know. Energetic sorts. Your uncle and I were agog in Istanbul. It was/is an incredible city, with much preserved history. One book “Istanbul” by Orhan Pamuk was my dead-on favorite last year. Despite a pep talk I couldn’t manage to convince my book group to read it.
The garden is slowly coming in to shape. My new Chinese neighbors were stunned by the grapefruit, and helped to pick tons. The lemon hedge is groaning with fruit, so I picked a grocery bag full to give recently. Oh yes, if I could figure out how to use my “Zio!” gadget on my computer, I could send you a snap of a large king protea. One blossom. I am proud of it!
Maybe I am getting a bit loony. But gardening does help to keep one busy. I have to be here, definitely, the first week of July, when all the apricots come in.
Please visit and we’ll make a return to Chinatown, or go to Marin County, or drive to Carmel.
We did not make it back to Chinatown, or Marin County, or Carmel, as it turns out. But that’s okay. Because the traveling I do with her, and will do until my last day, requires no physical transportation.
Yes. I will read. I will read and remember and write. And I will get a little loony in my garden, and visit Istanbul, and try, try, to do right by you, my dear.