When I was 10 years old, my fifth-grade teacher offered us a chance to be pen pals via the English Speaking Union. I had always been fascinated by stories, customs, holiday traditions and foods of other lands. Naturally, I volunteered to have a pen pal (or pen friend, as the British say). We received names of children of similar ages from England.
Judith lived in Derbyshire, in the north of England. We corresponded via airmail — those thin, crackly papers that folded up and were less expensive to send than regular stationery. We also exchanged comic books, kiddie magazines and little gifts. We wrote about our families, schools, hobbies, holidays, foods — in general, we shared our lives. Judith and I maintained our writing all through high school and into college.
When I was a junior in college, I was going to spend that year studying in Paris. Judith and her family invited me to spend the Christmas vacation with them in England. I was so excited at the thought of meeting her for the first time!
What a wonderful week we had! We clicked right away. Her parents and brother were so warm and welcoming! I visited my first pub; drank my first "shandy" (a mixture of beer and lemony soda); saw Judith's brother play in a cricket match; went to a little stone English church for Christmas Eve service. It was just like in a movie! The most memorable experience, however, was right in Judith's house. They didn't have central heating, and we slept in twin beds in her room upstairs. In the mornings, Judith's dad would come upstairs with two huge, steaming mugs of tea for us to drink in bed while he started a fire in the fireplace! We were warm and comfy under the quilts, drinking our tea. I felt like I was in a Jane Austen novel!
Time passes; life becomes more complicated. Nevertheless, Judith and I are still in touch — not as often, not with that youthful exuberance, but we still share that common bond. I only wish I had told that fifth-grade teacher how much she enriched my life!
--Linda R. Kay, Kings Park
Only 8 cents, but priceless
I have been corresponding with Ingrid, who lives in Vienna, Austria, since August 1957. I started by getting her name and address through a group called "letters abroad." I asked for someone of similar age and interests, and we "got along" very well.
Through the years, we have both gone to school, married, had children, traveled and are now grandparents.
We have only met twice — she visited here in 1990, and my husband and I visited her and her husband in 1993. Also, both of her sons have stayed with us.
We have shared good times and not-so-good times, traded photos, described our friends and what we like and don't like. One of my close friends even corresponded with one of her friends for several years. We have even discussed some "politics" -- but not very often.
When we started, I remember that postage for an overseas envelope was only 8 cents — I think it went by boat. It cost more to send it airmail, but I was in no hurry.
--Barbara Sperber, Greenlawn
Missives from Mom
My mother became my pen pal from 1979, when she and Dad moved to Sunrise, Fla. She wrote one letter every week until dementia took hold of her memory 15 years later. I saved them all in my closet in a bright pink and white decorated box. It warms my heart to pull them out every so often.
"Today your father and I went to the doctor. I make the doctors laugh when I sign in as Mr. and Mrs. 'Shnorer' and ask for drug samples. Your father gets angry when I do it . . . but it's fun."
My letters back to her were never long enough or clever enough to match her wit and creative writing skills. I wish I had tried harder. I would simply report what everyone was up to and how proud she would be of my kids.
"Your father and I sat at the swimming pool all afternoon and the same people repeated the same stories to us over and over again. I feel like I'm talking to broken records down here."
Spending time there on vacations, I sat at that pool, too. She wasn't kidding.
"I joined the choral group and am having the time of my life. I get to sing 'Memories' and everyone cheers me on."
She enjoyed her retirement. She wrote about everything that made her happy.
"Everything I love is free . . . I'm walking in the early dawn with my headphones plugged into my little radio on a path to long life and good health. The sun, the sky are all mine for the taking."
She wrote letters to my daughter, Joanna, encouraging her to practice her piano, for she was brilliant at it. She wrote to my son Paul to join the chorus and "show the world how talented he is."
The happy smile drawing at the end of each letter near her "love mom" were her signature goodbye. More personal than an email or text, the letters are forever. When I want to remember my mom's happiest years and delve into her innermost thoughts, I open my letter box and relive her memories.
--Phyllis Weinberger, North Woodmere