Now in my fifth week of quarantine, collecting our daily mail has become a main event in my day. While sorting through the supplemental Medicare offers and credit card ads, should I spy an envelope addressed to me in actual human handwriting, my heart does a little dance. Sometimes a sticker covered envelope from a granddaughter, sometimes a note from a relative or friend, they are all priceless! I have always loved receiving snail mail, but these days it can make my whole week.
Author and lifestyle philosopher, Alexandra Stoddard, wrote in her book Gift of a Letter: Giving the Gift of Ourselves, “A letter is a chapter in a relationship.” When my youngest son, Adam, was living nearly 2,000 miles away in Texas for several years, we decided to try an epistolary relationship. In other words, we would be pen pals. We wrote back and forth sharing what was going on in our lives and at the end of the letter we would share a story about ourselves that the other person would not know, revealing something that would help us know the other person better. Adam now lives much closer and our letter exchange is on hiatus, but the collection of letters I have from that time is a chapter in our lives that I cherish.
Throughout history there have been many pairs of famous pen pals. Catherine the Great and Voltaire never met, but were pen pals for fifteen years, only ending with Voltaire’s death in 1778. Edith Wharton and Henry James crossed paths at a couple of dinner parties, but it wasn’t until around the turn of the century when James wrote a letter to Ms. Wharton that a relationship was born. They exchanged letters supporting and critiquing each other’s work until James’s death in 1916. And the famous relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior found even greater notoriety in 1986 when the executor of Beauvior’s estate published her unedited Letters to Sartre. Those letters are full of wonderful passages like “My tenderest kisses, beloved little being-I dreamt about you.”
Thoughts of pen pals always remind me of my sister-in-law, Jane. I have known about her epistolary relationships for years. It was Jane’s long-term exchange with a woman in Switzerland that led to a strong friendship and several trips across the wide Atlantic to visit each other. And it was this friendship that finally got my sedentary older brother, Jane’s husband, to leave the United States for the first time! She has exchanged letters with people from Scotland, Switzerland, England, Russia and more. A desire to learn more about the world through the exchange of letters led her on some great adventures. Flying into the Orkney Islands on the north coast of Scotland with the rustic stone cottages and hillsides of sheep is something she will never forget.
I recently spoke to Jane about her prolific letter writing and was fascinated to learn about the roots of her pen pal habit. Around 1940, Jane’s older brother found a pen pal in England through Wee Wisdom Magazine. That relationship didn’t stick, but Jane’s mother went on to exchange letters with the British boy’s mother for many years. Jane got in on the exchange when she was a teenager, with both she and her mom sharing the same pen pal. That is how she leaned a lot about the Beatles before folks in the US became familiar with the British invasion! When the British mum could no longer write, her niece took over the exchange. A long-term relationship passed on to another generation. It was an emotional moment when Jane finally was able to meet up with this woman and niece in England who had so enriched her life.
Magazines no longer seem to advertise pen pals in their back pages, but pen pals still exist. An internet search reveals several websites that can assist in your search for a letter writing relationship. There are many that offer email pen pals, but there are still some good old fashion pen and paper pals. Some use this exchange to work on their language skills. Some use it to improve their writing skills. But there are still those who are fueled by an interest in learning about other cultures and the world outside.
I have letters Mr. Smith sent me during our first year of marriage over 40 years ago. I have letters from my beloved Aunt Ruby that help me feel her presence. All my saved letters from old friends, relatives and acquaintances are chapters of my life that I prize. I encourage my grandchildren to write by sending them letters with questions and jokes and their responses get tucked away into my box of memories. Should you feel moved to put pen to paper and write me a letter I will add it to my treasure trove. And I promise to write back.
C’est la vie.