79: Women of Letters

79: Women of Letters

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls

Women of Letters

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.

~Phyllis Theroux

My one-week suitcase bulged with two weeks of clothing. Fifty-four years old, I was filled with the excitement of a ten-year-old when faced with the prospect of meeting my pen pal — someone I only knew through the scores of e-mails Pamela and I had shot back and forth through cyberspace over the last couple of years.

Ours had been an unlikely pairing. I was a lifetime Midwesterner, married, with two almost-grown kids. Pamela was a New Yorker, single, a French teacher who had spent most of her life living with and later caring for her mom, a first-generation immigrant.

I live in a house surrounded by Iowa farmland, and Pamela lives in an apartment in Queens. The 1,100 miles between us were erased by our common love of writing, a discovery we both made in our fifties.

Our first correspondence occurred in 2005 after we’d submitted essays to an AARP publication. Total strangers, we were both coming to terms with our new calling as writers and were wondering if we had anything of value to say to the world. After we’d submitted 400-word essays on AARP’s topic of the month, “What I Really Know About Letter Writing,” Pamela reached out to me with an e-mail:

You don’t know me, but I noticed we were both on the list that was not chosen for the hard copy magazine. It looks like AARP wants to use our essays on a website. That was three weeks ago and I’ve not heard a thing. Have you found out when our stories might appear?

I’ll admit I was a bit reluctant to answer her note. At my age, I really wasn’t interested in collecting new friends, especially ones I’d never see. But I’d been wondering about my essay, feeling like a failure with a rejection letter in hand, and I found comfort in Pamela’s words. Maybe we weren’t failures if, instead of hard copy, our work could appear on a website. And at least I would not fail alone.

“No. I haven’t heard anything either, but I’ll watch the website,” I wrote back. We made a pact to let each other know as soon as we heard from AARP.

Our friendship sprouted. Our stories did appear several weeks later, accompanied by beautiful artwork — a very nice look, we decided. Both of us were nostalgic about the lost art of pen-on-paper communication, and we’d approached “letter writing” from two unique perspectives. Via e-mail discussion, Pamela and I decided that we’d done a pretty darn good job, and maybe we could support each other on our quest to publish. So we continued a series of e-mails back and forth between Iowa and New York, forging our writing skills and our friendship one word at a time.

Pamela and I made a habit of trading our essays and asking for input. We constructed a friendship built of carefully chosen words and mutual respect. Pamela’s work was brainy and well thought out. Mine was gritty and random, but we enjoyed our differences and gleaned writing tips and submission opportunities from one another.

As destiny is inclined to do, it finally brought two keyboard tappers together geographically in the summer of 2007. My family thought I was nuts to choose to meet a total stranger (probably an axe murderer) in the largest city in the United States. But my college-aged daughter was spending the summer in New York, providing me with a perfect excuse to meet my pen pal.

We agreed to rendezvous at Le Pain Quotidien, a bustling Midtown Manhattan hangout where Pamela said we could share a light lunch. But the evening before our date, I panicked. How would I find one stranger in a city of eight million? We had not exchanged photos or planned secret gestures — tools that could identify either one of us in a crowd. I went to the keyboard and zapped Pamela a frantic e-mail.

“How will we find one another?” I asked. “I am middle aged and short. I have freckles and brown hair.”

Pamela too must have wondered how we would connect. “I am African American with medium length hair,” she typed. I smiled, thinking how we might look together, a pale rural tourist and a suave city sophisticate, strangers seeking common ground.

To my eager eyes, every person who hurried through the door at Le Pain the next day was African American with medium length hair. I must have lurched toward at least six women, my mouth half open with a nervous unspoken greeting, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. “I’m Pamela,” she said and led me to a table. We chatted non-stop like reunited girlfriends. Our virtual friendship took on a verbal dimension.

Loud New York conversation was a prelude to resumed silent e-mail back home; Pamela and I became connected in more personal ways. Over the next few years, at our keyboards, we met our respective friends, traded travel tales and confessed our food weaknesses. We swapped fitness frustrations and shared our holiday traditions. Gingerly, we stepped out of cyberspace to exchange travel postcards, favorite books and finally, irresistible holiday goodies.

Now, when planning infrequent New York trips, I reserve a “Pamela afternoon,” and she always finds time for me in her busy schedule. When she learned that I had majored in art, we added museums to our list of places to visit together. Pamela, the best personal tour guide in New York, is in tune with her city and in touch with the art world in a way I deeply admire. She’s uncovered great local food spots for us, and we always leave each other regretfully, mid-sentence, vowing to reserve more time for our next meeting.

Back home in front of my laptop, I happily pluck Pamela’s messages from an inbox infested with advertisements, forwarded jokes, and chain letter threats. I eagerly devour her witty essays and encouraging messages. She seems to know the writer I hope to be, and I try to reciprocate her sincerity across miles of thin air.

Ignoring my initial inclination to run from a new friendship was a blessing. I’m thankful she found me, honored to call Pamela a loyal, cherished friend. A kindred spirit. As time adds layers of meaning to our messages, I’m always excited to find where our words will take us, both as writers and as friends.

~Kristi Paxton

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