This is not my typical blog subject matter, but it does have relevance here and shortly you will see why.
This November 12th marks the 40th anniversary of my writing to my pen-pal and friend Michaela. I find this significant because we still write letters and mail them. She hand-writes all of hers to me. The term “pen-pal” may be foreign to many reading this – but back before computers, students often would write letters to someone from another part of the world to build friendships far away.
When Michaela and I started writing we were just 14 and 13 years old respectively. Our birthdays are one year and nine days apart – both in April. I picked her name out of the assortment offered to me in my 7th grade Spanish class where we were to correspond with a student from Mexico to aid with our foreign language skills. I was out sick the day the Spanish-speaking pen-pals were selected and those few students left were from Europe. I selected Michaela as she was a female and had name I thought I could pronounce easily.
I wrote my first letter to Michaela, my new ‘pen-pal-to-be,’ dated November 12, 1975. I told her about where I lived, my family, my pets, my school, and my favorite colors (which amazingly are still the same colors to this day: purple, red, and black). It took nearly two weeks for Michaela to receive my letters back then. I would wait for weeks until her return letter would come back to me. We both wrote on special Air Mail paper that was very thin so we could send it for less money. Seeing that familiar pale blue envelope with the red and white slanted stripped trim show up in our respective mailboxes made for a great day. You see, Michaela and I corresponded every few weeks – and we became very dear friends. No matter what was happening in those tumultuous teen years, we always had one another to confide in and share life with. It was comforting to have this friend who wasn’t a part of my regular life. We literally grew up together. We graduated school, began our careers, met and married our spouses, and became adults — all together.
In 1985, we got to see one another for the first time. I flew to Austria with my former husband and for the first time got to speak with Michaela and her husband Robert. We didn’t talk on the phone back then, so I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce her name properly. We made one attempt at hearing one another’s voices as one year in our late teens, we used tape recorders and recorded our ‘letters’ on cassette tapes and mailed those back and forth to one another. I remember I had asked her to speak her name for me on the tape so I could know how to say it, and wouldn’t you know — that was the one part that got cut off and I never heard it until I arrived in Saltzburg, Austria years later.
That first night at their home, my husband asked if Michaela had my very first letter to her. To our surprise and delight, she was able to get ALL my letters she had stored in a box in a cabinet within a few minutes and as she reached to the very bottom she pulled out the first letter. We were all eager to hear what my 13 year old self had written back then, but the most poignant part was the date: it read November 12, 1975. The date that we had just arrived when I was seeing my dear, far-away friend for the first time was November 12, 1985. It was our 10-year anniversary to the DAY and neither of us knew that until that moment! Yes, a celebration ensued.
Now 40 years later, we still write. Although, not quite as frequently as when we were younger. I have raised two grown children (she never had any), and we are now both helping care for our aging mothers. We are both crafty and have made and sent hand-made gifts over the course of the many years. We have called one another on November 12th over the years. She has called every time an earthquake hits California to hear I am safe. Everything is shared.
We have kept to the tradition of hand writing our letters. Yes, we could send off an email and skype call if we wished, but we don’t want to. We like keeping things simple and un-changed by the times of technology. We like seeing that letter arrive in our mailboxes (yes, still) and sitting down with a cup of tea and seeing how our lives have unfolded over the course of the past weeks or months since the prior installment of our lives to one another. We each still enjoy the paper, the handwriting we have each come to understand and read so effortlessly.
Lots have changed over the past 40 years…and yet so much has remained the same. We have seen one another four more time since that first visit. It is always like we have never been apart – and honestly we haven’t. She is my longest remaining friend in my life. We have such very, very different lives, but we are also so much the same. When we first began writing, in order not to offend the other person, when we wrote something that was supposed to be in jest we would always write (haha) next to it just to be clear that it was an intended joke. I didn’t speak German and she worked hard with English to communicate with me. I think the most lovely thing I recall is that from that first moment we met in that airport we knew our humor was the same and we got one another – we never wrote (haha) in our letters again.
Happy Annversary Michaela, and thank you for being my ‘secret’ friend for 40 years – my dearest friend from the other side of the world. The simple things in life really are the best.