by Maria Schulz
Recently, when my friend Darlene was in an accident, I started sending her cards to keep her spirits up. I’m sure by now she’s sick of hearing from me, but it rekindled my love affair with the written letter.
I found myself walking through card stores or souvenir shops, searching for the perfect card. It had to be beautiful or make me laugh. I was hoping it would make Darlene laugh too.
I have loved sending and receiving letters from family and friends since I was a little kid. I was the kid getting dragged out of class because I was always passing notes. I was also the kid who thought the letter writing segment of the Language Arts curriculum was the most fun thing ever. Yes, I know some people think letter writing has gone the way of Jane Austen and the wax seal, but I still think it’s one of life’s sweetest pleasures. Emails and text messages are fun and fast, but they don’t last. It’s like a really great phone call. Unless I commit it to paper afterwards (and nobody but a stalker does that), once it’s over, it’s over.
When I was very little, I started leaving notes to my parents under my mom’s pillow when they went out at night. Usually, these were silly little notes about how much I missed them while they were gone, and how I wished they would come home.
The house was a hotbed of activity, and I didn’t always enjoy the chaos. Jude’s friends were always there, blasting the roof off with their music and eating all of our food. Tony’s and Louie’s friends would sometimes come and play poker, banishing us from the dining room and also eating our food. God forbid you left a sandwich alone for two minutes; there was a good chance that one of the teenage boys in the house would eat it before you got back with your chocolate milk.
One time, Jude and Louie were out and Tony was left to babysit the four youngest. Our Mom had left behind a treat: we were going to make hot cocoa with marshmallows. I couldn’t wait for it! I kept pestering Tony to make it so we could drink it. By 7:30 p.m., he was so sick to death of me that he started yelling at me.
“If you say one more word to me about that stupid hot cocoa, I will put you straight to bed!”
Being the wise guy that I am, I responded, “Can I have some hot cocoa first?”
“No!” Tony said, as he marched me off to bed.
I wrote the following angry missive to my mother:
Tony was so mean to me tonight! He made me go to bed at 7:30! My bedtime on a Friday night isn’t until 10 pm! I am so mad.
P.S. Joey and Paul and Chris laughed at me.
P.S.S. I didn’t get to watch The Night stalker!
P.S.S.S. I didn’t get any hot cocoa!!!
The next morning, as I stumbled out to the kitchen, I heard all of my brothers whooping with laughter. There was my mom, in the center of the room, reading my letter to them.
I believe my mother thought she could make them see how unfair and unkind they were being to me, and they would hang their heads in shame. This would be followed by all of them gently taking me by the hand, leading me to the stove, and whipping up a batch of hot cocoa that we would all share together. In the background, fairies would fly by on the backs of unicorns.
Instead, it just gave them more ammo to torture me with for years to come. The good news is, I learned that “P.S.” actually stood for “post script,” and you didn’t write, “post script script,” you wrote “post post script.” The bad news is, “P.S.S.S., I DIDN’T GET ANY HOT COCOA!” was yelled at me so often, it may just end up on my headstone.
Now that my brothers knew that I left notes for my mother, I had to hide them under my father’s pillow AND sleep on the bed so they wouldn’t take them out and re-write them.
Once, when I was typing a letter to my Spanish-speaking grandmother, I left it in the typewriter to go out to the living room for a break. I stayed for a while, watching Gilligan’s Island and The Partridge Family while I enjoyed a chocolate chip cookie and a glass of Yoo Hoo. When I went back to the typewriter, I discovered that one of my brothers had sabotaged my letter. It now read like this:
Hi! How are you? I am fine. School is okay, except I have Mrs. McGovern again. We are going to have a play about the American Revolution and the Boston Tea Party. My line is: “We are sick and tired of the taxes!” I hope I remember it.
–This is where my letter ended and one of my brothers tried to slip something in to upset my grandmother and get me in trouble.
So anyways, I was just wondering: how is that crazy old bat Grandpa doing? I bet you wish you could just put him away already.
When are you going to give me some money? I mean, cards and letters are nice, but how about some cold hard cash?
See you soon.
P.S. You talk funny.
Luckily, I read the letter over before sending it out, or I would have gotten in big trouble and had to deal with a tear-stained, incoherent reply from my hurt and angry grandmother. None of my brothers ever admitted being the perpetrator, but I have my suspicions.
After my grandfather died, this same grandmother went back to visit family in Puerto Rico. She was gone for a while and I missed her terribly. I missed sitting in her little apartment, eating ham sandwiches on crusty rolls with spicy brown mustard and a six-pack of coca cola. I missed watching our soap operas together, guessing who would be the next character to get killed. I even missed the smell of her Jean Nate perfume. My Mom let her know that I missed her a lot, and the next thing I knew, letters started to arrive just for me.
In her patented broken English mixed with Spanish, my grandmother told me all about her travels around Old San Juan; about the cruise that she took with her baby sister in that part of the Caribbean; about their funny dinner with the captain; about the fun they had in the casinos; and how much she missed me too. She told me not to worry too much; the soap operas probably would be on the same story lines when she got home.
My mom bought me stationery and stamps so I could write back to her. Mom found a stack of scented paper and matching envelopes at the bottom of the clearance rack at Hills Supermarket. It smelled like fresh strawberries, blueberries, peaches, apples and watermelon. Every time I wrote to my grandmother, it smelled like summer and made me hungry (now that’s a surprise!)
Every afternoon that summer, after I was done writing to my grandmother, I would go visit my neighbors. Mr. and Mrs. Murray lived two doors down and liked to sit on their back patio for a couple of hours. Mrs. Murray was a beautiful, white haired lady with fair skin and eyes the color of aquamarines framed by old-fashioned glasses. Her eyes were always twinkling and raised around the corners in a smile.
Mr. Murray was a tall, lanky man with a little bit of gray hair around the edges of his bald head and a bright smile on his face whenever I came barreling down their driveway on my little lavender bicycle. Mr. Murray was a Mets fan, but I didn’t hold that against him. Usually, Mr. and Mrs. Murray were bent over laughing at some stupid thing I was saying.
One day, while munching on home made ladyfingers and drinking lemonade with Mrs. Murray, I mentioned that my grandmother was home.
“Now who am I going to write to? I have all that stationery left,” I said, in between bites.
“I have someone for you,” Mrs. Murray said, as she ran inside. She came out with a piece of paper and handed it to me. “Her name is Pam and she’s from Ohio. She’s my granddaughter, and she would love a pen pal.”
“Don’t you want to ask her first?” I said, kind of scared of writing to a stranger without an invitation.
“I will call her and tell her to expect a letter from you soon,” she said, and smiled.
So, I ran home that day and started writing. I introduced myself, told her about my family, and asked her about her life in Ohio. I sent the letter off, not sure if I was going to be rejected or accepted. It was a little scary.
The following week, a letter came for me. It was written on stationery that had cats all over it. Pam enclosed her first grade photo so I could picture her face when I was writing to her.
Pam had long black hair, bright blue eyes, a cute smile, and she loved to write. She told me about her classes and the town she lived in, which was kind of rural. She was hoping to visit her grandmother soon and see New York in person.
The years went by, and we continued to write to each other. New school photos were exchanged each year and I looked forward to hearing from her. Pam liked cats and teddy bears; I liked dogs and dolls. We both liked getting letters in the mail and since we both loved her grandmother, we wrote to each other for about 5 years.
The last letter I got from her was all about boys and school dances. She wanted me to help her figure out what some boy meant when he sent her a note that was clearly his ham-fisted way of asking for a date.
What was I supposed to say? The only training I had in romance came from watching 5 soap operas a day when it rained and playing with Barbie and G.I. Joe, whose biggest arguments centered around whether or not she was really in love with Ken.
I wrote back a reply that was probably no help at all, since I was still innocent and playing with dolls while she was out there dating. Eventually, Pam’s grandmother died, the letters dwindled to a stop, and I missed them both.
I never did stop loving the thrill of opening the mailbox and seeing a card or letter addressed to me. Every time I opened one up, I felt like I was discovering someone’s story and setting out on an adventure.
These days, the only letters I get are bills, and the only people I know who are looking for pen pals are murderers and other prison lifers. While I’m sure they have lots of incredible stories to share and loads of time on their hands, those are not really the kinds of adventure stories I’m into.
So Darlene will just have to suck it up and keep getting those cards.
No, I didn’t get any Hot Cocoa, but guess what? It’s too hot anyway. Here’s a fun drink you can make at home. Skip the expensive barista, or better yet, put on an apron and make believe you’re one of them.
According to Tom Wilbur, the author of all those fun Top Secret Recipe books, the legendary Serendipity in New York has a Frozen Hot Chocolate drink that is the bomb. In fact, it was so good it had Oprah dancing around her set like she was Tom Cruise before Katie Holmes took off.
Not a fan of hot chocolate? Try this one:
Iced Mocha Coffee
So, Hungry Lifers: what was the best letter you ever got? Did you ever have a pen pal? Did your brothers torture you? Let us know all about it in the comments section below. Thanks!