Lives linked for decades with postage stamps

This marks the 60th year that letters between me and my English pen pal have traveled the high seas from the United States to England and back. How this longtime correspondence originated is forgotten, but I do know that my first letter from Elsie is dated Nov. 14, 1944.

This letter, and all subsequent ones, is still in a special box in my attic. My early letters to Elsie did not survive the turmoil of those years when the war in Europe was raging and she lived in war-torn Manchester, England. I can read between the lines of her letters during that time, though, to glean some of what my letters must have contained.

I was a grammar-school student in a three-room schoolhouse in a small New England town when our correspondence began. Though my classmates and I were far from the fury of war, our lives were full of newspaper accounts of battles. Family members and townspeople were serving under arms in far-flung places of the world, and we discussed related events in our classroom.

The letters we received, which surprisingly came on a regular basis, were graphic and meaningful history lessons.

In that first letter, Elsie thanked me for sending her a copy of the local newspaper and for enclosing a book. One sentence she wrote was particularly telling: "We can't get things like that, so if the parcels we send you look rather shabby, you won't mind, will you?"

She thanked me, too, for a photo of myself that I'd included and added, "It's the nicest photo I have seen in years. We haven't been able to get film for three years, so I have no photos."

The war finally ended. To my surprise, though, Elsie's hardships continued. In 1949, she mentioned that toffee had come off rationing after eight years. Meat was rationed until 1951, by her account.

I sent nylon stockings, which sadly never arrived, and a letter told me that she guessed "someone took them out of the post."

Our letters were not all filled with hardship tales, though. We wrote of movies we had seen, boyfriends we had, and social activities. Before long, she announced her engagement, and I told her of mine. We shared wedding invitations and photos, and subsequently we exchanged baby announcements and pictures.

And so the years went by, and the time came when we were both grandmothers. Now our letters are filled with talk of grandchildren. The requisite photos are sent across the sea.

Twice, instead of sending a letter or a parcel, I have sent myself on the transatlantic flight to visit Elsie and her husband in England. When we first met, it was like meeting a member of the family, and surely we are family after all these years of letters filled with hopes and dreams, sorrows and joys.

In answer to my pleading for her to come to the United States, she always replies that she won't come until a bridge is built, as she dreads flying. I remind her of a statement that she made in a 1947 letter when she wrote that it was her "dream to come to America."

We have made our little history, my English pen pal and I, we've shared our common roots and a bit of our lives, and my letter box is full.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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