Saturday, October 6, 2012

If you listen closely to those voices from the past, you will hear a kindred spirit


Remember pen pals?  When I was in the third grade at South Ward Elementary, our teacher told us that we were going to start a pen pal program with another class of kids our age from England.  England! 

I was given the name & address of a boy named James, & I excitedly wrote him a lot of nonsense, and peppered it with questions asking what he liked to do in his spare time, has he ever been in a real castle, did he know who Batman was, was he forced to bow when he saw the Queen—it was  pretty embarrassing stuff, but earnest.  A few weeks later I got a letter back from James, and all I can remember him writing was that he’d never met the Queen, his gran had a cat named Winks that was blind in one eye & he had a dog named Sam.  Oh, and he knew who Batman was but “picture books were for kids.”  Dude, how old were you?  I was eight! 

I’ve been reminded of James as I’ve recently begun talking—no, exchanging some pretty long letters to be exact--with someone I knew from a long time ago.  We actually graduated in the same high school class, but the photo below is when I knew her best, in sixth grade at Lippencott Elementary.Sixth grade, Mr. Rumancik

I’m the one standing next to our teacher, Mr. Rumancik, in the ‘short boys’ row.  (My friend doesn’t wish to be identified—at least not yet—but she’s here too.)  We’ve been exchanging a lot of emails these past several weeks, so for now I’ll simply refer to her as my pen-pal.  When we first began writing, I told Pen (I’ve shortened it already) a favorite memory of mine from sixth grade.  At the time this class photo was taken, I was good friends with her brother, who was a year younger than us.  And in the spring of ‘73, he invited me to their farm for an overnight visit.

So that Friday I brought my older brother’s gym-bag along to school (packed with comic books, striped pajamas & toothbrush) and rode the bus home with my friend & his sister, my classmate.  I didn’t think we’d be seeing much of her when we got off that school bus, as we didn’t really talk a lot in school and I assumed she’d be off somewhere doing girl-things.  (You know, like at recess—boys had one side of the schoolyard, girls had the other.)   But the three of us wound up spending a lot of time together, and I was surprised at how outgoing Pen was, and fun to be with.  Later that night, after her brother got sleepy & went to bed, she and I sat up and talked about school and things we enjoyed doing, and I remember thinking “who is this girl and what happened to that shy girl in my class?”  And for the next couple days or so when I would see her at school, I would nod and smile hello at her, as if we shared a secret. 

The friendship with her brother didn’t last long, I think that one-year difference in age played a big part; but I also realized that night, when Pen & I sat up and talked and laughed (until her mom came downstairs & asked us to keep it down) that you can have younger or older friends, but no one really gets you like the people your own age.  And the older I get, the more this hits home. 

In a few short weeks, I’m going to be 51.  So why is it the older I get, the younger everyone else around me seems?  New neighbors, people I ride the bus with, professional colleagues, friends I’ve made online.  It may just be a year or two, but I am friends with people that are younger than me by a decade, and there’s even a few that were born around the same time I was in college or making my way in the world. 

 I received this letter from our congressman in 1978 for winning a dorky ‘Literary Award’;  not only did my penpal remember this, but the paddling I got from that teacher above too

I’m not saying that half-century mark is the only thing we have in common, but for some reason I take comfort in it.  To be honest it’s almost quaint, this flourish of letters on both our parts.  When I told my sister Shawn about all the recent correspondence, she said “what’s going on here, where is this headed, what’s the plan?” 

I told her I don’t know.  It’s not like we’ve exchanged photos of ourselves or even phone numbers.  I would guess we’re just sharing and seeing where it takes us.  (Or until one of us develops carpal tunnel syndrome from all the writing!)  I do know that a week or so ago when I learned a couple of our ancestors had the same surname and shared this with her, she said “I hope we don’t discover we’re related, I like to think of us as kindred spirits, not kinfolk.” 

It was a nice thing to say.  I said I felt the same way too.



  1. Doug, I feel the same way sometimes. I was just looking into places that are throwing Halloween parties so I could go with my meetup group, and I settled on one in the suburbs since the city ones had very young people featured in the photos from last year. It's hard sometimes to find groovy places that people in their 40s go.

    Also, I liked the story about your English penpal. I sent away for a European pen pal when I was in high school, and I was matched with a girl from Switzerland. We wrote up through college, then lost touch, then she tracked me down through Facebook a few years ago. When I travelled to England a couple of years ago, I met up with her in person as she currently lives in the London area. She is a very delightful person and so easy to talk to--I felt like we were soulmates in many ways. Now what I wouldn't give to meet a nice English boy penpal that makes me feel that way!

  2. Hi Pam--well, I do know how difficult it is just to know people in your own peer group, especially the older you get--you have to either be in high school or a nursing home! And that's a pretty interesting story about your Swiss pen-pal, how cool that you got to meet her in person. Thanks for sharing! :)

  3. Love the back story and also what she said: "I like to think of us as kindred spirits, not kinfolk." So lovely! Is there anything better than receiving a long letter from a friend? Sweet post Doug. :)

  4. This was so nice to read and tenderly written. I had to chuckle over James and his response to your curious questions. I think I asked what you hoped was going to come of it, more than what the plan was...and could Sophia be a flower girl...Regardless, you're just my favorite writer. Isn't it wonderful that a real spark of friendship that began one day never really went away?

  5. Hi Chelly, thanks for your kind words, I hope things are good with you.

    And Shawn, thanks as always for your great input, you know I value your thoughts--especially when I can give you a chuckle :)

  6. One word says so much--thanks Andrew ;)


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