Today’s HerStories essay is from Pam Moore, of the blog Whatevs. Have you ever had a pen pal? Were you able to translate your correspondence into a lasting friendship? Pam’s unique story is a testament to the power of written words to connect people. When you are done reading, make sure to enter our second HerStories giveaway, this time for Carlin Flora’s new book, Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are. The giveaway will run for a week, and it is really easy to enter! For more information on this book, read Jessica’s recent post here. And now, enjoy:
By Pam Moore
I know it’s bizarre to refer to Jen as my pen pal. We are grown women, after all. But “friend” doesn’t quite convey what Jen is to me. Though our friendship has evolved, from strictly letter writing to intermittent long distance phone calls (on Sundays or after 7pm of course), to in person visits, to emails and text messages, it was hand-scrawled, sometimes sloppy, always heartfelt words through which we established our bond. In each of our houses, there is a collection of the other’s letters. In those letters are the stories of our everyday lives and the people in them, along with our insecurities, worries, hopes, and dreams.
Jen and I met on a cruise ship in 1994. She was a sophomore and I was a junior in high school and we were both on vacation with our families. We bonded at the Make Your Own Sundae bar, both of us too young for Happy Hour with the adults, but too old to be part of this juvenile ice cream nonsense. She suggested we stay in touch. The next day we returned to our homes on opposite ends of the country, hers in Southern California and mine in Rhode Island.
I had all but forgotten about my friend from the Sundae Bar when Jen’s letter arrived. Enclosed was a sheet of loose leaf college ruled paper, crammed with Jen’s girlish, blocky, narrow handwriting, and her wallet sized soccer picture. On the back of the envelope were a big “S” and the words “Sorry So Sloppy.” The following Saturday, I waited for the phone to ring and for my small cup of French Vanilla Dunkin Donuts coffee to cool enough so I could take a sip, while manning the reception desk at my dad’s scrap metal yard. Instead of starting my homework, I grabbed a piece of paper from the Xerox machine and wrote Jen back. And that was how it began.
Each week I would reply to Jen’s letters in favor of getting a head start on my studies in the early Saturday morning quiet of my dad’s office, before the rush of customers. I told Jen of the stress of college applications and about my heartache when my best friend got a new, popular best friend. My disappointment and anguish the first time I was dumped by a boyfriend. The drama of finding a date, ten days before my prom, when my next boyfriend broke up with me the morning after his prom. My excitement about leaving for college, tinged with anxiety over still being a virgin. Jen wrote me of her crushes, her sports, of life in a house with two sisters. She worried I would be far too busy to keep writing to a high school kid once I went off to college.
Ten years after we met, we were still exchanging letters. Instead of finding them placed lovingly on my pink comforter by my mother, now they waited for me in the mailbox at my Chapel Hill, North Carolina townhome. Instead of tearing into them immediately, like I did as a teenager, I would set them aside for later. Often, I would stick Jen’s letter in my bag so I could savor it over coffee before work the next morning.
In a letter, Jen announced she was applying to graduate school in my city. I was giddy with excitement over the prospect of hanging out with my pen pal in person. When she was accepted to her program, I found her an apartment and vetted her new roommate.
Soon after she arrived, the excitement wore off. We lived only two miles apart, yet we were more distant than ever. She was engaged to a guy I thought was wrong for her. I found it easier just to stay away than to bite my tongue. Meanwhile, I was absorbed in my own drama, dating a man on and off who was much older than me, unemployed and had stalker-ish tendencies. I’m pretty sure she didn’t understand that at all. I barely knew why I was with him, myself.
When Jen finished her graduate program, I felt guilty that we hadn’t been closer while she was in town, but not especially sad that she was leaving. She moved back to California and got married. I sent a note and a Best Buy gift card but did not attend the wedding. Our letters became fewer and farther between as she settled into married life, while I scoured the internet on my hunt for Mr. Right.
Eventually, Jen and her husband divorced. Despite the fact that we had unlimited minutes on our cell phones at this point, we reconnected via more frequent letters and occasional calls. I moved to Colorado, and Jen flew out from California to visit. We stayed up late, giggling and talking in my futon bed, vowing to stay in closer contact.
A few years later, my then fiance (now husband) and I attended Jen’s second wedding. Months before her first child was born, I found out I was pregnant. That same girl who was afraid I would be too busy for her once I went away to college became a friend I have come to rely on to answer questions about pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, pumping, babyproofing, and weaning. Though we connect these days almost exclusively by phone and text message, I still see her handwriting in my mind when her name pops up on my iPhone.
Twenty years from now a pen may be an antique, and letter writing an extinct art form. But the girl I met at the ice cream sundae bar on a ship somewhere in the Caribbean all those years ago, who became my pen pal, my friend, or whatever you call the person who has the story of your life stashed in shoe boxes full of letters- she and I will be swapping tips on menopause and mammograms, still picking up wherever we left off.
Pam Moore lives in Boulder, CO with her husband, toddler, and five backyard chickens. She enjoys running, writing, crafting, and mothering (most of the time). She is an occupational therapist and co-producer of Boulder’s Listen To Your Mother Show. Pam welcomes you to visit her blog, Whatevs…
Great narrative! I have heard so much about you, Pam, from my daughter, Stephanie.
I’m so excited she’s a part of Listen To Your Mother.
Thanks, Chris:) I will be at Stephanie’s show… Looking forward to it!!!
I love this! How I miss having a pen pal! When I was in middle school and high school, I had several pen pals from around the world. (I would sign up for them every chance that I got.) I waited with great anticipation for weeks from every letter from my writing pal in Japan, another in South Africa, one in Mexico. Even now I am such a letter horder — I have letters from friends that I kept from high school and college. Although the immediacy and easiness of it is great, e-mail just isn’t the same. Thank you for contributing to HerStories!
Interesting look at the evolution of a friendship.
One thing that interests me is how ‘absence made the heart grow fonder’ when they were both in the same place. I wonder if that is more common than we notice, and that in this era of constant, easy, almost free communication, we’d benefit from being forced to appreciate distance more?
What a wonderful story of friendship! I’ve never had a pen pal, but my daughter has some “text” pals – girls she texts often but rarely sees. It’s not quite the same as a letter, but I hope she develops a friendship like the one you and Jen have, Pam.
Oh, this beautiful post made me tear up. Love that your bond even survived a period when you weren’t as close. That just seems to make your current closeness even more sweet. So glad you have each other as moms. This mom thing can break you if you don’t have a good girlfriend to turn to! –The Dose Girls
Re: the mom thing- YES!!! I have to say, even though Jen is in a different time zone, it works well for me, being a night person… It’s an hour later for me, so beside Jen being a great friend, she is someone who is most likely to be awake when I need someone in the night hours:)
I got tears! Such a wonderful story of connection and love at a time the world really needs it. Great writing.
Aw… thanks. I’m blushing:)
I remember when my first pen pal, Hayley, from Australia when I was 12. She was a great friend, exchanging photos and information with her family…as we grew, I think the communication stopped because we moved houses, etc. Sad! Now it’s gone electronic, and we’re all pen pals in a way! Thanks for sharing, Stephanie!
What a great story! I’ve had a friendship that evolved from pen-palship and I know exactly what you mean when you mention seeing the person’s handwriting in front of your eyes when thinking about them. It’s so reassuring to know that friendships morph and go through ups and downs but the same people who were in our lives in 1994 are still there these days.
Wow, I remember the art of being a pen-pal. There’s something sad about the fact that our children will likely never experience having to wait weeks for a letter. I always went to summer camp (grew up in Colorado and went to camp in Florissant) and remember waiting waiting waiting for a friend’s letter and taking so much time to write back, and to draw pictures (surprise there) on my letters back to her. Awesome that you two stayed in touch and awesome story!