I wrote the words in cursive, looped to satisfy grade-school penmanship standards:
A Fourth Grade Girl
Marathon, New York
I enclosed an invitation:
My name is Jennifer Dukes, and I live in Marathon, Iowa. I’m writing to see if there is a fourth-grade girl in Marathon, New York, who would like to be my pen-pal.
I inserted a wallet-sized photo of myself, but removed it before I mailed the letter. I wondered if anyone would want to befriend a girl with crooked teeth and crooked hair-part.
So I sent words only.
Three weeks later, an envelope arrived, with grade-school tilt of words addressed to me.
Her name was Heather. And she didn’t actually live in Marathon, New York, but up the road a bit. And yes, she liked Strawberry Shortcake, too. And could I please tell her more about the cornfield in my backyard?
We built on a foundation of words, one paragraph-truss at a time. We revealed more and more of ourselves until we framed a friendship, much the same way a carpenter builds a house.
We spoke of games of hide-and-seek and how we secretly still played with Barbie dolls, even though all our friends had sworn them off. (At least, that’s what they had told us.)
We wrote of first bras and favorite books and junior-high crushes. And we compared two families in two towns, half a nation away from one another.
Through words, we transmitted the weight of who we were.
I hadn’t thought about Heather for years.
I sat in the third row of the SUV, tracing Texas roads from a writers retreat back to the airport. For three days, I and other editors on the High Calling team discussed the power of words and compelling stories.
Before the weekend, most of us hadn’t seen one another face-to-face. We knew each other through words on blogs, paragraphs in emails, and thumbnail photographs in Facebook statuses.
I didn’t know the penetrating color of her eyes,
or the sound of her infectious laughter — like a trumpet blast coming from a tiny flute.
or the feel of his fist-bump,
or the way he wore a perma-smile,
or the lilting southern accent that colored her words,
or the way she said her name like this: “Cleh,” rather than the hard-r “Claire.”
I thought about these things on the way to the airport. And Bradley, with the silver-framed glasses, must have been thinking them, too. He put voice to my rattlings. From the second row of the SUV, Bradley said that the people he had met face-to-face validated the two-dimensional people he’d known on his computer screen.
“Our words carry our spirits,” he said.
My heart quickened as Bradley continued: Isn’t that the way of Jesus, too? For Christ is the Word made flesh. And the Scriptures carry the weight and the spirit of the Person of Jesus.
“Our spirits reside in the words we type,” he said.
We turn our moments and lives into sentences and paragraphs — transmitting very self to very self.
And in a stroke of blessing, we had a small window of opportunity to touch the person we’d already come to know through word and photo alone.
We said goodbye in an airport parking lot, and I turned to go quickly, before they saw me uncorked — once again — with tears streaming down cheeks.
Yes, these people had become real to me.
And this all made me think of the words that made Heather, Heather.
I remember the day I mustered up enough courage to slip the photograph of crooked me into the envelope. And I remember the day she sent one back of her own crooked self.
And I thought she was exquisite. I wanted to be her friend forever. And we promised one another: We will meet one day!
But the letters stopped. She sent the last two, and she asked me in the very last letter: Why aren’t you writing me anymore? I don’t remember why I stopped.
I can still remember the shape of who she was to me. But the childhood friendship is an unfinished and fragile work.
I wonder if I could find her, a woman whose spirit is now but a whisper in my memory.
Photo: Cobweb at Laity Lodge, Texas.
Who has become real to you through words alone? Did you have a childhood pen-pal?
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