From 1982 to 1988 or so, I had close to 100 pen pals from around the world. I would spend hours upon hours in my room reading letters and writing at my desk.
I loved my desk. My entire bedroom was really a little girl’s dream. It was huge, with a walk-in closet where I would set up a pillow and blanket, shut the door, turn on the light and hide-out with books. The house was built in the 1930s and the closet still had the original dark wood floor and shelves, and had a crystal door knob—all of the doors in our house did. For some reason, I was obsessed with these things and wished I could take them all off and save them in a box to look at and hold in my hands whenever I felt like it.
After my dad died when I was 8, my mother used some of the insurance money to buy a new bedroom set for me. Before then I had mismatched hand-me-down pieces in brown. I remember the day the new set arrived. Everything had been cleared out of my room in preparation, and the freshly painted lime-green walls and green carpeting were spotless. As the deliverymen brought in the furniture, I waited in our spare bedroom so I wouldn’t be in the way. Then, finally I was allowed to go in and look.
My new furniture was white with yellow detailing—canopy bed, dresser, nightstand, desk with shelving and a tall skinny dresser. The bedding was a green gingham checked print. I felt like I never wanted to leave my bedroom again…and I pretty much never did unless I absolutely had to!
The shelf above my desk where I sat to read and write endless letters to pen pals during the ’80s.
My friend Chris in my room; you can see the canopy bed (I took the top down eventually after I felt too cool for it!) and the green checked bedding and curtains.
Waiting for the mail to arrive every day to hear from my pen pals seemed like a lifetime. During school it was easier—I didn’t have to think about it all day and it would be waiting for me when I came home. Summer was tough. I would sit on the front porch watching for the mailman and practically attack him when he got there. I remember our mailman vividly. How many people remember the mailman from their childhood? He sort of looked like Wimpy from Popeye except with dark hair and glasses, and he always hummed.
There were days I wouldn’t receive anything, and it was living hell waiting the 24 hours for the next batch to arrive. Forget about a Friday when nothing came, I practically wanted to cry. Then there were days when a huge pile of letters would come. Germany, Australia, all over the United States—little girls would write page after page about their latest celebrity crush, about their family trips, what they liked and didn’t like about school, what they worried about and looked forward to. We exchanged stickers for our sticker collections, and sent articles to each other from Tiger Beat and Teen magazines.
It only occurred to me years later just how much money my mom must have spent on this hobby of mine! I can’t imagine how high the postage must have been some weeks. She loved it as much as I did though, she always wanted to hear what the girls had to say, especially those from other countries.
I guess this is where my love for writing began, and why it seems so natural for me now to want to share my life with others, and even more so to read the stories of others. Memoir has always been my favorite genre of writing, and it’s also true for me in real life. I love nothing more than to meet someone new and hear his or her story.
Today when Saul and I were walking to Central Park, we found something amazing. Pages were scattered along the sidewalk and I picked them up. Normally I would ignore trash—it seems an impossible undertaking to think that you can help clear the garbage from the streets in NYC, but I didn’t pick these up to be a good Samaritan. I picked them up because the paper was old, the yellowing crinkly kind, and had old type on it. The first piece was a test booklet from Smith College, with the date 1966 on it. The first pages introduced an essay about Yeats (this piece was handwritten). I turned to the final page and saw the grade, B/C. I picked up several of the other scattered pages as we walked, eventually putting together a typewritten letter from 1980, by the same author who had written the college essay, which began, “Dear Mother.” There was also a drawing of a woman.
My treasure…found on today’s walk to the park
We walked another hour or more before we made it home and I could read the letters. I instantly became immersed in this woman’s life and was surprised at the similarities between her life and mine. In the letter to mom, she described her husband’s (or boyfriend? It isn’t clear) hernia surgery at Mt. Sinai hospital (where Saul had his done), and it’s clear that he is older than she is. She talked about a few parties she went to, described the antics of their two cats, and how excited she was to get the prints back from a few rolls of film she had taken in recently to be developed. She thanked her mom for photos she included in her last letter, and described what she loved about them.
“I especially like the surrealistic one with Julian glowing in yellow in the foreground, you mysteriously trench-coated behind, the glowering sky, part of a sinister (!) black umbrella drifting in from the right, and strange stationary figures off behind in the mist. It’s classic!”
She reassured her mother that if she referred to happiness in her life now, after years of chronic unhappiness, it didn’t mean that she had an unhappy childhood.
“I have never told you (and wouldn’t have, even if I felt it was a black and white situation) that I had an unhappy childhood. Most childhoods, even with the best intentions on the part of the parents, are a mixture of happiness and unhappiness…it’s part of growing up.”
She wrote to her mother in such a familiar and completely honest way, as though she were just having a conversation with a friend over coffee. Yet, her writing is impeccable, and she made sure to correct any errors in spelling or grammar—which I can also relate to. It turns out that she was Assistant Editor at the time for a magazine which is still in print today. Later, she became Managing Editor at a very popular current magazine. I know this of course because I Googled her name, hoping that she had actually written a memoir or novel. That doesn’t seem to be the case unfortunately. She has such a beautiful style that has captivated me and I want to know so much more about her life.
In a second letter, the first page is missing, but from the context I know that she was writing again to mom, this time about her separation from her husband/boyfriend. It’s absolutely riveting. She obviously never intended for this to be publicly read, so I feel a bit guilty about having found it, but it’s so beautiful that there seems to be some justification in that. I wonder if she has thrown these things away, or if she’s died, and someone else cleaned her apartment and threw them away. We’ve learned that she lived or still lives on the street where we discovered the items. I know that she kept a journal:
“I have bought the old office manual typewriter for $10, and as soon as I can get it home hope to try my hand at something other than the journal.”
The most compelling part of her letters though is her description of love that she witnessed around her. She hints that she knows what love is, but does not have it herself. She describes two separate occasions where she is moved to tears. First in the hospital where she visits her husband after his surgery, she watches another patient with his family in the room:
“The fourth occupant is a young man who looks like a classic Wasp Harvard student and who is obviously dying. From what I overheard he has cancer, and hasn’t been able to eat anything for almost a week. He has a nice brave face. A nice girl spent the evening with him—could be his sister (resembles him) or his girlfriend. There was a lot of laughing and joking from them, and at one point all the Puerto Ricans [the other room occupants whom she describes earlier in the letter] gathered around Fred’s bed to make jokes and cheer him up. Then sister or girlfriend gave him a good backrub. I had to look away because I was so saddened and so moved by that love and that humor, when the situation was obviously so dire, that I began to cry.”
She went on:
“Something similar happened today on the bus—I noticed two figures entwined a few seats down and opposite me. At first I thought it was two kids playing, but then saw a middle-aged woman holding, practically on her lap, a boy of 15 or 16. When his head jerked around I saw that he was retarded, his features a distortion of hers (she was an attractive, classy lady). The two of them talked all the way downtown—I couldn’t understand the boy, but she obviously could, and she would answer him clearly and softly. They had an intimacy that was wonderful to see. Every so often he would convulsively grab her and bury his head in her breast and she would hold him quietly. And the look on her face was wonderful—full of love and strength and not caring if people stared (i.e., what’s that grown up boy doing clinging to his mother so much?). Anyway, I was very happy for them and again had to turn away because of tears. I felt that that woman was one of the chosen few, who know what love is. Most people would pity her, but I don’t.”
This woman is someone I want to know. She’s insightful and analytical, careful to see what others are feeling and to respond in a way that stays true to her own point of view. I’m almost tempted to try to contact her, but I think it would be too weird, especially when (if it were her) she tried to dispose of these letters but instead they were found. How odd that they somehow made it out of the trash and blew along the street that way. It’s like they were meant to be found and read-by me-as though she’s an old pen pal trying to send her story to me in the old fashioned way. It was so nice to have the words in print on paper again, like the old days.
I want to know whether she found love again after the relationship in the letters. I want to know if she ever had children or if she’s still alive and well and playing lots of tennis. She was beautiful, (I found a photo of her) and would be around the age of 70 now. Most of all, I want to know why she never wrote anything to be published.
If only I could get my hands on that journal of hers.