Mail seemed magical to me as a child. Some of my earliest memories include walking up the long driveway of our house in Oklahoma to the mailbox. When I learned to read, or at least recognize the first letter of my name, I’d scan the mail eagerly for anything with my name on it. Unless it was close to my birthday, I usually didn’t receive a thing. I had to do something so I could receive some of that magic mail.
I found a small ad for international penfriends in the back of one of our children’s magazines. For a small fee, you could send in your name, interests and the top three countries of your choice and be matched with a penpal. Wonder of wonders. It was a fascinating idea.
I gathered my allowance, enlisted my sisters into the adventure, and sent off an inquiry. I soon received a brightly colored application form and a slip with all the countries to choose from. I mulled over each question with all the attention it deserved. Boy or girl? Age? Interests? Then the all important list of countries.
Each country’s name hinted at tantalizing stories from far away, exotic places. Cameroon? Japan? Norway? The organization promised a penpal from one of your top three choices. After much deliberation, I made my decision and sent off the application.
Every day after school, I got off the bus and rushed to the mailbox. Each day I felt disappointed to discover bills and letters with my parents’ names but nothing for me. My Ranger Rick and Cricket magazines helped a little.
Finally the day came. I pulled a white envelope with a colorful border from the mailbox. I tore it open and scanned the contents. “Italy. I got Italy,” I cried. One of my first choices. “I also got Zimbabwe.” I hadn’t chosen that country. I wasn’t quite sure where it was and immediately pulled out the Z World Book Encyclopedia to look it up.
“I got Australia,” my sister said. “And Egypt.”
I wrote letters that night to Chiara from Italy and Desiree from Zimbabwe. I loved how exotic Chiara’s name sounded. I repeated “Desiree from Zimbabwe” over and over, enjoying the rhyme and rhythm.
Within a few weeks of posting my letters, I had envelopes in the mail with my name on them. White envelopes with red and blue borders.
Airmail. I had airmail.
Thus began an exchange that lasted several years. I’d pour out my thoughts on school, the books I was reading, soccer, and even the boys I liked. Some things I never told anyone else, but there was safety in those distant friendships. Knowing our paths wouldn’t cross, I could tell Chiara about my first kiss, or Desiree about how disappointed I was not to be asked to a dance.
I sent pictures of me, my family, my dog Chico and our many cats. I included small, light gifts like bookmarks, pennies and stickers. In return, in those wonderful red and blue envelopes, I’d receive pictures of the girls. Chiara at a friend’s swim party, dark eyes, dark hair and completely Italian. Desiree with a short bob and sparkling brown eyes with a hint of mischievousness I loved.
Lindsay meanwhile corresponded with Rafik from Egypt and Jill from Australia with the same enthusiasm, ending her penfriendship awkwardly when Rafik professed his love for her. When I mentioned our penfriends recently, she related how much she loved getting those letters in the mail, abrupt ending and all.
Those letters were many things to me as a child.
An acknowledgment that the world was wide.
A window into the lives of girls in faraway places.
A stunning realization that even though we lived halfway around the world from each other, we shared many hopes and dreams.
A promise that someday, I would do more than receive letters from these places.
I would go.
We dreamed of meeting each other someday, Chiara, Desiree and I. I often mentioned one girl to the other in my letters. I even sent their addresses to each other so we could all be in contact. Oh to have had Facebook or Skype in those days.
We never met, and I’ve long since lost our letters, tossed the small gifts, misplaced the pictures. I don’t have last names to look them up, but I often wonder how Chiara and Desiree are doing, where they are, and if they remember me.
Without the instant connections we have today, without the ease of social media, I had to work hard on those relationships. I sat down at my desk and wrote real letters. I waited weeks, anticipation growing, for their responses.
And when those envelopes appeared in my mailbox, covered in foreign stamps and Par Avion, with special messages from my friends, it made all the waiting worth it.