A packet bright with foreign stamps arrives in my mailbox - a letter from Monique! Here is news of herself and her family, comments on world events and social issues, even reflections on this 50-year-old correspondence of ours. With the help of a French-English dictionary, I devour these pages before writing back to her. Our shared words are savored, saved, reread - more cherished, perhaps, because we have never met.
Even decades ago, I knew our friendship was unique. In 1960, my article entitled "Penpalship: an Enriching Experience" appeared on these pages. I was young, married with three kids, a fourth one due shortly, and I was just trying my wings as a fledgling writer.
Amid the daily rounds of diapers and baby food, canning pickles and freezing beans, running after stray heifers, and walking with kids and double-stroller down to the mailbox, the arrival of a letter from Monique was a moment of special brightness. I could practice my French. I could savor a taste of the world beyond our Vermont farm. I could catch up on news of my friend, whose life in many ways paralleled my own.
In the article I said: "It's a comfortable correspondence, where, I'm sure, if either of us were to visit, we could sit down and chat half the night about old times."
In 1947, I started junior high school on Long Island. My French teachers had been sending school supplies and books overseas to help France rebuild after the devastation of World War II. A packet of letters arrived from a school in Cherbourg, and the letters were passed out, willy-nilly, among us.
Chre Amie Inconnue. "Dear unknown friend."
Monique was 13, and I was 12. "What sports do you prefer?" she wrote in English. "I like cycling and swimming. Who are your favorite authors?" I shared her enthusiasm for Sir Walter Scott and Jack London. Actors and actresses? We talked about Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Michle Morgan.
"Have you a garden?" she asked. "We have an apple tree and two pear trees. The pears and apples are excellent, but the little birds taste them before we do."
At my home, we still grew tomatoes and kohlrabi in our victory garden, which had been so important during the war. A small pear tree grew in our yard.
We shared school grades ("What do A and A+ signify? We are marked on 20.") and drew plans of how our desks were arranged. After the war, my school life had quickly returned to normal, but Monique wrote, "Our school buildings were badly damaged during the bombardments on Cherbourg. So we are in another building. Next October we'll reenter our school."
We sent back and forth a stream of newspapers and magazines, postcards and photographs; we both collected stamps.
By the time we were well into high school five years later, even my French teachers considered our correspondence long-lived and notable.
Intimacy between us developed in the same way that it grows in a close family: We forget the minutiae but cherish the bond. I know Monique better, perhaps, than I've ever known anyone beyond my own family. We longed to visit each other. Letters frequently included fervent invitations and sorrowful regrets.
Monique and I both progressed to higher education, and then she began teaching school. We wrote to each other facilely, if imperfectly. Monique was always far better at English than I was at French, but most of our letters were written in both languages.
We both got married in 1955. I read about the birth of her Cathrine just before writing to her about the birth of our Sam. I had two more children, Frank and Jenny, before writing of our fourth child, Fred, just about the same time as her second child, Frdrique, was born.
Monique and Claude moved to St. Cloud near Paris; Roy and I lived southwest of Laramie, Wyo., and later moved to our own ranch near Sundance. Monique and I continued to send information about our new localities while we shared the problems and joys of raising children and living our daily lives.
"We don't go out," Monique wrote. "With the children, we can't go to the theater, and we don't like the cinema. Now we spend our evenings sometimes reading, sometimes watching television when the program pleases us (which is rare)." I could have written the same. Those evenings she knitted sweaters for her family. I crocheted granny-square afghans for mine.
Eventually, we began writing about our children's marriages and then grandchildren. At last communication, we each have five.
Monique and Claude have retired to the seacoast at Agon-Coutainville; Roy and I still live on our ranch. Monique and I both love the land, the quiet of the countryside, hers by the sea and mine deep in the hills. We both have a small flock of sheep, and either bees or geese.
"I can assure you that our friendship is a part of the happiness in my life," Monique wrote. "I can't explain easily, but you surely understand." Yes, because in that, too, we are the same.
And still - after more than half a century - we have never met. Perhaps it doesn't matter. As Monique says, "Through joys and trials, I have never felt alone. I always have my friend. She is no longer inconnue - because we know better with the heart than with the eyes."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society