Pen Pals Reveal the Joy of Writing in a Texting World

When I was in elementary school, I had a pen pal in Australia. Her name was Sara. For reasons I no longer remember, Sara briefly attended my school while her folks were in the States and she and I wrote to each other after she returned home. We kept in touch on and off for years, letters and school photos arriving sporadically in fits and starts. Every one of her letters ended with the same question: “When are you coming to Australia?”

I never made it to Australia, but the memories of our long-distance friendship still make me smile. Thus I was thrilled when my older daughter announced her desire for a pen pal back this fall. Having recently mastered the fine art of cursive writing in the third grade, my girl was eager for a non-school reason to write things and asked me to find her a correspondence partner.

I hit up a high school friend with a comparably-aged daughter. It was the perfect connection. The girls see each other once a year when the kids and I make a pilgrimage to my hometown in Illinois. They have written back and forth half a dozen times over the past few months and the letters warm my heart. They are filled with the charming call and response of childhood. What is your favorite color? What is your favorite movie? What is your favorite food? Often these queries include illustrations – my daughter recently received a very fine drawing a narwhal in response to a heartfelt inquiry about preferred animals. She reciprocated in kind with a drawing of a penguin.

Snail mail has been an illuminating experience for my 21stcentury child, equal parts enchanting and frustrating. My daughter was absolutely shocked to discover that it could take days, if not weeks, before she received a reply to her first letter. Waiting for a written missive to arrive stretches her patience to the limit. But the joy of finding a letter in the mailbox!

I remember that joy. In addition to my Australian buddy, I had another pen pal when I was in middle school: my grandfather. My granddad was a professional musician and he traveled the world playing the viola in a respected piano quartet. He would send me postcards and letters from his trips, with short notes arriving from California or Texas or Taiwan.

His handwriting was gorgeous – still is, even at the age of 97 – and I can vividly remember the thrill of seeing his distinctive strokes on an envelope in the mailbox. One Christmas, I made him stationary, using rubber stamps to create musically-themed paper and envelopes.

Written communication feels like a dying art in our world of texts and emails and instant communication. Heck, complete sentences and fully-delineated words sometimes feel like a dying art. I’m pleased to see my girl keeping it alive.

And as for Sara from the land down under? Writing this article prompted me to look her up on Facebook. She’s a tech guru of some sort, still living in Australia. We exchanged a few messages to catch up, although I doubt we’ll stay in touch. There’s nothing bridging the distance other than the memory of the letters we wrote each other decades ago. But knowing she’s still out there makes me happy.

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