Childhood Memories: Pen Pals

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Bridge to the Sun

It was in Miss Flowers’ seventh grade English class that we participated in the pen pal program as a group.  (Miss Flowers was married, but all teachers are “Miss” when you’re little, especially in the South.)  The idea of a pen pal seemed strange and wonderful to me, before the Internet connected the world like it does today.

My pen pal’s name, I still remember, was Chiho Fukasawa, and she lived in Japan with her pet bird, Boota.  The letters were written lightly in pencil on what I called rice paper, but my dad called “onionskin” or typewriter paper—so unlike my purple script (which came from a giant pen that wrote in different colors) on Lisa Frank stationery, the envelopes sealed with stickers rather than my spit.  My best friend and I, would read each other’s letters over Damian’s slushes or chocolate milkshakes at lunchtime, wearing off the last of our Bonne Bell lip gloss.

What was also nice about that class was that it was in one of the outbuildings, so if you had to go to the bathroom, you got to be outside for a little bit.  Because the Deep South part of Florida had problems with mildew, due to the thick humidity, the outbuildings seemed less gross because they weren’t near the moldy-smelling bathrooms.

I like to say it was a noteworthy year.  It’s interesting how the best writing years of my youth coincided with being best friends with Jessica McBride.  Third grade (in which Jessie and I shared a class and a Brownie Girl Scout troop) was the year of the journal, and the seventh (when we shared most of our classes) was the year of the letter.  It was before the advent of the e-mail (at least for me), and I loved writing in cursive; I was often told my penmanship resembled calligraphy.

Letters from Chiho remind me of simpler times, when getting a letter in the mail was still exciting, but not a phenomenon, and back when grandparents would send a ten-dollar bill tucked inside a birthday card.

Every two weeks, a batch of letters would come.  Sometimes the teacher would have us read the letters aloud, but I was always too shy; I would try to get Jessie, who was my opposite in every way, to do it for me.  Then after class one afternoon, Miss Flowers gently told me that I wasn’t reading my words, but someone else’s, so there was no need to be bashful.  Though I still didn’t like getting up in front of class, it wasn’t so bad after that.

I remember reading the letters thinking how much Chiho, even though she was from an entirely different culture, sounded just like me, with a best friend, a pet, favorite foods.  Those letters showed me that kids all around the world wanted the same things, whether they had them or not.

My mom worked for the post office, and so I would show her the envelope with what I called the Japanese calligraphy on it, and the unfamiliar stamps; every letter is still tucked away in their original envelopes.  Chiho would mention the plum and cherry blossom trees, and I would write (sometimes in acrostic) about the magnolia trees, our gardenia bushes, and the azaleas that would bloom, as I liked to say, “out of the blue”, despite a lack of care.  (This was back when I wanted to be a botanist and grow the toffee apples mentioned in “The Chronicles of Narnia”.)

The year of the pen pal (once summer hit, my mom stashed away the letters and Chiho and I lost touch) was one of the best of my life.  It was the year I learned to write about my life through letters, the year I learned how to turn my ordinary life into an extraordinary read.  I will never know if Chiho believed my letters (though she loved them anyway), but even though we were only long-distance friends for a season, the memories of her letters and the last year Jessie and I would be friends, are as vibrant and crisp as apples in the fall.

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