A Lifelong Pen Pal Relationship

August 2, 2011
By ecarguh GOLD, Hillsborough, California
ecarguh GOLD, Hillsborough, California
17 articles 0 photos 0 comments

<I>Dear Granny,</I> I wrote. A large, bulky pencil slouched in my tiny, childish hand. I had just learned to write; my curves were slightly dented and the straight lines were wobbly. <I>Thank you for letting my family visit your house. I love the four chickens that you gave me.</I> I glanced at the ceramic chickens and smiled. <I>It was nice meeting you, Granny. Love, Grace. </I>

I first met Granny when my family and I traveled to Paris for vacation. At the time, I was six years old. We visited my father’s French professor, Lunian, who desired to give my family a taste of an authentic French lifestyle by insisting that we meet a lady named Mariette Boncompain.

When I first met her, I noticed her plump figure, red shawl, short hair, and floral shoes. She appeared to be in her late fifties, and I later discovered that she was exactly half a century older than me. Her enervating smile and enthusiasm were contagious. I politely greeted her with the single French word I knew and wandered around the room. Mariette spoke with my parents and Lunian with an uplifting flair as her hands never ceased to conduct an orchestra of words. The walls surrounding her comprised of intricate paintings, collages, and sketches that covered the entire wall. I felt overwhelmed by the countless decorations in her room. Swarms of vibrant colors flashed endlessly in front of my eyes. She created everything from layers of flowers and hearts to Disney characters in her paintings.

“Do you like Snow White?”

I jumped at the sound of her fluent English. She noticed my startle and placed her hand on my shoulder to relax me once again.

“She is my favorite!” I slowly reply in awe.

Mariette picked me up and carried me to the other side of the room where she handed me a present. I opened the gift to find four ceramic chickens, all varied in size, and lined them up from tallest to shortest. I turned to Mariette to thank her, but her name slipped my mind. I decided to call her “Granny” and expressed my deepest gratitude when I left. From that moment on, I remembered her as Granny.


I now walked with my mom to the post office. I gripped the thank you card in both hands and rotated it periodically to touch all four corners. I exclaimed to the postal worker,

“Make sure it gets to France!”

Two weeks later, I received a bright turquoise envelope in my mailbox. My eyes widened with surprise to see a colorful envelope in a pile of white ones. I was thrilled to see the words <I>Miss Grace Hu</I> on my first letter.

“Look, Mom! Granny sent me a letter!”

Grasping the envelope in my clammy hands, I observed every minute detail on it. The “Priority Mail” sticker slightly overlapped the two French stamps with an illustration of the Eiffel Tower. A collage in the shape of exotic flowers from intricately cut magazine strips covered the back side. The glue lost its stickiness, so a detached petal waved back and forth. In the address box, she wrote my name so angelically, using elongated letters and a hybrid between print and cursive.

My fingers made their way to the seal and gently ripped it off to reveal the crisp white printer paper on which she inscribed. <I>My Little Grace,</I> the letter began. I browsed over the words which seemed illegible. Her p’s only appeared as straight lines, the m’s looked like w’s, and the u’s as n’s. The straight lines in her g’s, f’s, p’s, h’s, t’s and y’s all extended into the line below. Her letter was like a work of art; it seemed to fill itself with symbols rather than letters.

“Mom! Can you help me read this?”

Even my mom struggled with the sentences. “<I>It was a pleasure to have you at my home. How is San Francisco? I dearly miss you and keep thinking about the wonderful time I spent with you and your family.</I>” We proceeded to read word by word with extensive gaps in between each one. At the end, she wrote, <I>I await your letter in my mailbox! Very much love, Granny.</I> She even customized a signature for “Granny” and established it as her pen name.

Still overwhelmed with joy, I read that letter over and over again until my eyes grew sore. It smelled like the dusty, faded perfume she wore. I could hear Granny’s sweet, mellifluous voice in my head just as if she were standing beside me. I mused upon the number of hands the letter passed through to reach my mailbox. It struck me that the letter had traveled 5,579 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and over the entire North American continent before landing in my hands. All these miles were for me, and only me.

<I>I await your letter in my mailbox!</I> I quickly scrambled for a pencil and stationery and began my letter. The weary afternoon sun cast a soft, golden shade just bright enough to write on my desk. <I>Dear Granny, I am doing well.</I> My pen smoothly glided over the paper like a skater on ice. I continued about subjects that seemed familiar to me like Mrs. Smith, Dad growing vegetables, Mom preparing dinner, and my friends. While writing, I felt a unique sensation of happiness that warmed my heart. Even while I discussed issues as trivial as playing hide-and-seek with my friends, I could take the time to reflect on my day and time I spent with them. I did not think of writing as a burden, but rather as a chance to express a flow of my thoughts. <I>Will you come to visit me? Just look out the airplane window for the Golden Gate Bridge! Love, Grace.</I>

The next day, my letter began its 5,579 mile journey back to Granny. The wait for her next letter seemed like torture. I ran to the mailbox every day after school as soon as I arrived home. Little did I know that international mail took at least five days to travel one way. For days, my heart dropped at the sight of no letter and disappointment swarmed in me. What if she decided not to write back? What if my letter got lost? Or what if the airplane sending my letter crashed in the Atlantic? I panicked and doubted at times. I worried about my letter, and I deeply yearned for hers. Three weeks passed, and I finally spotted a fuchsia envelope in my mailbox after waiting for what felt like eons.

I tore the seal and removed the perfectly folded letter. <I>Dear Little Grace, I wish to see San Francisco, but I do not like to travel. Do not worry though; I will visit you in my dreams!</I> By then, I had familiarized myself with her handwriting and could read the sentences with less difficulty. Through our letters, I also began to notice the power of our words to brighten one’s day, affect one’s mood, and arouse one’s emotions. Words were, after all, the nexus of our relationship. Despite our completely disparate backgrounds, they served as our common ground and the reason for our flourishing friendship. I read about French traditions and lifestyle, and I grew to appreciate not only the French culture, but also the cultures of others. Reading about her experiences was like watching a movie in my mind. I gained much insight from her them and learned how she handled certain situations. I thought of her as a long-distance mentor who used her letters as a mirror into her life to guide me through mine.

We talked about entirely different events. I usually wrote about outdoor activities while she discussed her tight-knit community. We exchanged happy letters, sad letters, pink letters, and green letters. She inspired me to try new things such as food and activities. As I grew older, our letters displayed more complexity. We shared ideas, criticism of the world, and opinions on global affairs. I always paid my utmost attention when I read each word because she wrote in such a powerful and compelling manner. Reading her letters was a learning process for me, and I always took something away from her meaningful experiences.

In addition, I never sent her a message electronically. I handwrote every single one of my letters because typing seemed so impersonal. Everyone used “Times New Roman” or “Helvetica” in order to make their writing legible. But letters did not need to have every word be understood – they spoke for themselves. Handwriting letters gave a sense of individuality and it showed the time I put into writing my letters.

Not only did Granny and I send letters, we also shipped presents and compact gifts, especially for Christmas. Despite hefty fees for mailing heavy objects, I shipped an oil painting I painted myself. That same year, she sent me a wooden angel carrying a star with the words, “To Grace!” This angel reminded me of our special international friendship. Despite the distance, the connection Granny and I created over the years pulled us closer together. With every letter I read from her, I felt as if no gap separated us. There was no Atlantic ocean, no land mass, nothing. She did not even need to travel to San Francisco because I believed that she sent a part of her soul along with her letter to see me.

The distance between us physically disappeared on December 29, 2009. Before I could absorb the events unfolding in front of me, I realized that the taxi was on its way to Granny’s house, 12 Rue du Marche. I could not sit still. I fidgeted with my jacket, my fingers restlessly tapped my leg, and my knees wobbled from anxiety. <I>12 Rue du Marche</I>. We inched closer to her house by the second. <I>12 Rue du Marche</I>. Everything would be alright, I calmed myself. <I>12 Rue du Marche</I>. I slowly opened the taxi door and watched Granny sprint toward me. My heart pounded. My veins were going to explode. I turned toward her. Granny ran to my seat and I sunk in her broad arms and warm, cozy shawl for a bear hug. Her perfume struck my senses and she kissed my cheeks and I wished that the moment never ended. She emotionally cried, “I am so touched, so moved.” It was a beautiful scene.

This ultimate reunion marked our seventh year of correspondence with each other. We walked together, hand in hand, up her narrow flight of stairs to the second floor where I was further greeted by a cheerful group of her relatives. She constantly flattered me and compared me to the seven year old version of me. She was in high spirits at all times and nothing could remove her brilliant smile. Granny and I sometimes stared into each other’s eyes in disbelief of our presence; we could not believe that the 5,579 mile barrier between us had broken. In those hours we had together, we reflected on the past seven years and tracked our growth through the letters. The two of us had just as much to discuss in person as we did in our writing.

Night arrived too soon that day. I had to depart Granny once again. She gave me a self-portrait to remind me of our reunion. I said goodbye in French and English, in hugs and kisses. I knew that years would pass before I could see her again. I started to choke on my words. I wanted to cry, but I held my tears back. Granny hugged me one last time. As I rested my head on her chest, I inhaled her sweet perfume one last time.

“I will miss you, my little Grace,” she said as tears streamed down her pink cheeks.

“I will miss you more, Granny. I’ll keep writing. I promise.”

As the taxi drove away, I waved to Granny until I could see her no more. I put my hand down, rested my head on the seat, and let a tear roll down my face.

That day was the pinnacle of my existence. I replayed the reunion over and over again in my head like a timeless movie. Today, I still write to Granny. Our pen-pal relationship lasted throughout the years because both of us were constantly intrigued by each other’s life and the process of writing letters. When we first wrote to each other, I did not expect the exchange of letters to continue. However, Granny persevered and diligently sent letters every few weeks, and I always gladly replied. Nine years of our pen-pal relationship has taught me several valuable lessons. I have learned to take on new perspectives and to take time to understand one’s character. Letter writing has encouraged me to be patient. Society embroils itself in a fast paced world which seeks immediate responses in texts, emails, and phone calls. However, I refused to use those means of communication to contact Granny. It feels refreshing to isolate myself from all the surrounding technology once in a while. I have developed the skill to empathize with others and to create friendships of true substance. The intimacy and tight bond which Granny and I formed through our letters create a unique and life-long relationship. Regardless of our age difference, ethnicity, and nationality, we treasure our trans-nation, trans-continental pen-pal friendship. To this day, my letters still begin with, <I>Dear Granny</I>.

The author's comments:
We live in such a fast-paced world that sometimes, we need to step back and appreciate the simple joys of going the old-fashion way. For me, it was writing and receiving letters.

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