Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pen Pals

     I once had a pen pal. I’ll call her Penny for the sake of her privacy. The relationship wasn’t something we planned, it began naturally at a party as we discovered our mutual passion for good literature. Before that we were acquaintances who had only exchanged the smallest of small talk. Neither of us knew many people who loved to talk about reading or writing without an ego in tow.

     Penny wrote first to say how much she had enjoyed our conversation, to share the title of a book we had talked about, and to continue the discussion we had begun at the party. In her next letter she sent me a lovely poem I had never seen. It was wonderful. She used paper, envelopes, and stamps–the real thing. I looked forward with anticipation for each new letter to arrive. I began checking the mailbox myself instead of sending someone out for it, hoping for something beyond the usual bills and advertising. When a letter came I was so greedy I couldn’t wait for a letter opener and a cup of tea to begin reading; I immediately ripped into the envelope, leaving the edges all ragged, and read while the water boiled.

     So began an exchange of letters, literature and ideas that lasted five rewarding years. Penny and I became friends and gave one another beloved books for our birthdays. Once, she showed up on my doorstep with a bag of cardamom buns she had made for Easter and wanted to share with me. We encouraged and prayed for one another when troubles traipsed through our lives leaving muddy footprints that needed to be mopped. Alas, both of us eventually fell prey to the monster of “industrial-sized busyness” and our correspondence lapsed and fell silent.

     That was seven years ago. No one I know writes letters anymore–including me. Maybe it used to be a necessary form of communication but, somewhere along the line, it became an art form and then a vanishing one. Times change, I understand, but some things are hard to let go of. I've kept all my letters from my once-upon-a-pen-pal and get them out sometimes to read again. 

     In the witty and charming book 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, the New York writer shares with readers her 20-year correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer for a London bookstore. Twenty years. Now that’s a pen pal. The letters are mostly about books, of course, and to a book-lover like me that is part of its charm, but it is the relationships that develop between Helene and the folks who work at the book shop that make the story so delightful.

     I hope books never go out of vogue, especially ones like this.

1 comment:

  1. Love this! I STILL write letters, with stamps ( as outrageously priced as they are now days ) and used to have 75 pen pals. I got my first 4 pen pals at the age of 10 and it grew from there. I wrote weekly to them all, sometimes the letters ( to the especially close to my heart pals ) would be 10 notebook pages long. I can always share better through writing and the recipient can truly 'hear' what you have to say when it's on paper in front of them and they take the time to read it. I became very close to some of those pen pals and we ended up meeting in person and now are grown with families of our own and still keep in touch.