Celebrating National Pen Pal Day, June 1
Have you ever had a pen pal? My own experience, back in high school, was decidedly underwhelming. Apparently, “Je suis grande” (“I am tall”) is just as much a deal-killer with French teenage boys as it is with Americans.
Luckily for most people, pen pals were (and are) a great way to meet others and strike up worldwide friendships. Famous historical pen pals include Catherine the Great and Voltaire, Edith Wharton and Henry James, and Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. (Wouldn’t you love to read their correspondence?)
The traditional definition of “pen pal” includes the understanding that the two letter-writers don’t know each other ahead of time. “Pals” are matched various ways: Through teacher-driven programs (like the Student Letter Exchange, founded in 1936), computer algorithms (like the Parker Pen company’s pen pal computer, featured at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair), or even online. And it’s not just children doing the letter-writing!
The need to reach out and connect with others drives a steady stream of folks (of all ages) to sites like Pen Pal World, Global Pen Friends and Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals, which operates through Facebook.
Although pen pals traditionally use the postal service, they have many more options these days. Pen Pals can email one another or keep in touch digitally, through phone instant messaging and other services. It’s really up to you! Some pen pals become friends for life. Some even marry!
But let me suggest something radical: Perhaps pen pals don’t have to be strangers? Several of my friends revel in the art of letter-writing. We practically never call one another and seldom email, but our handwritten letters to one another have crossed paths via the mail for years.
The lovely thing about a letter (besides the joy of opening your mailbox and actually receiving something other than ads and bills!) is that it is tangible. You can hold it in your hand. You can reread it. Best of all, you can keep it!
My mother wrote beautiful letters to me all of my life, beginning mere moments after I was born. Nowadays, I write to her. She hates cell phones, and the retirement center where she lives doesn’t do landlines. Her days are much less busy than they used to be, so to help fill them up, I send her the latest details of my day-to-day life, memories of the past and questions to exercise her mind. For instance, how did she find out about Pearl Harbor? (She was 9 and had fallen off the handlebars of Barbara Barret’s bicycle on her way to rehearse for the Immaculate Conception procession at school and ruined her only pair of white socks. She was afraid to come home and be scolded, but when she got there, everyone was huddled around the radio).
Did you have a pen pal growing up? What did you learn from your pal? Are you still in touch? Let’s share our stories in the comments section. Or celebrate National Pen Pal Day by writing a letter to someone you care about or haven’t heard from in ages. You might just start something special!