I could have just visited her for holidays and special occasions. But then I would have missed out on having the pen pal that changed my life forever.
She didn’t believe me when I told her I could take Aunt Mary’s place. She tapped my hand with a placating look that let me know she wouldn’t hold me to my word. But one week later, the letter arrived in her mailbox, like I told her it would.
A letter that took me over an hour to write because I hadn’t actually written a letter since high school, and now I was in my late 20s and writing to my 80-year-old grandmother.
But I had to. She looked so sad when her sister Mary, her pen pal for more than 30 years, passed away. They had begun writing to each other after they each got married. Mary had moved to Massachusetts while my grandmother stayed in New York.
When my aunt died, I held my grandmother’s hand in mine and told her that I would like to take Mary’s place, if she’d let me.
That first letter turned into over a decade of letters between us. My grandmother would write one week; I would write the next.
A deep love grew for her in those words that I don’t think would have ever been possible in person. We shared our fears, our hopes and our regrets.
She told me stories that made tears fill me eyes, like how she and my grandfather created a secret language during the war so he could tell her where he was stationed without anyone else knowing. Or how she dealt with the pain and devastation from having a stillborn baby.
My heart skipped a beat each time I saw a letter in my mailbox.
It was those letters that not only taught me about my grandmother, but also about myself. While going through a divorce, I found solace in her words. She was a woman who had lost a husband to cancer, who taught herself how to drive and how to manage a bank account. A woman who raised three children whom she adored. Every letter embodied a love that I needed. A love to fill the pain happening in my own life.
But it’s not just the emotions that I remember the most about her letters. What always put a smile on my face were the bits of advice scattered throughout. From making sure to wear slippers on hardwood floors, to pushing the hair out of my face because I look younger when it is pulled back. Each of her letters were guaranteed to make me chuckle. And I often stood at my mailbox, laughing by myself.
She wrote me when I was down and depressed. She wrote me when I got back up and found happiness in myself. She wrote me when I started dating again and when I found love on a bocce ball court. She gave me wedding advice for my second wedding and even cut out informative articles from the Pennysaver about parenting when I was pregnant.
And she wrote me as she started to battle dementia and her heart began giving out. She wrote me until the end.
Then on Mother’s Day, 2012, I kissed her on her forehead and told her I loved her. That I couldn’t say thank you enough for all that she had given me in those letters.
That would be the last time I would see her. There would be no more letters, no more advice and no more funny observations of reality dance shows.
But instead of tears, I focus on the treasure box I keep inside my office. The box that is filled with each of those letters. The words that changed my life.
And someday, when I have a granddaughter who needs a bit of help in her life, I’ll pull those out and make her smile, and maybe, in reading them, she’ll even offer to put the pen to paper herself. And I probably won’t believe her either. Until I open that mailbox.
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