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Column: Dear Upper Valley Pen Pal



For the Valley News
Saturday, July 30, 2016

I have an Upper Valley friend who makes me smile. She’s lived in South Royalton her entire life on a road named after her family. She loves to treat herself to a fried scallop dinner on a nice summer evening and she’s a sucker for a pretty calla lily. She’s witty, wise and overall fabulous. The funny thing is that I have never met her in person.

Last year, I published a piece in the Valley News about my love for the handwritten letter, after a local stationery store in Hanover went out of business. To my delight, I received about a dozen letters from Upper Valley readers. Most were strangers, a few were acquaintances, all were Upper Valley residents. I responded to all of the letters and thanked them for taking the time to write. But one stranger kept writing. And I’m so glad she did.

To protect my pen pal’s privacy, I’ll call her “Dottie.” About once a week, I find a letter in my mailbox from her. Although Dottie is older than me, we have the same taste in stationery. She sends me sweet colorful cards in envelopes peppered with stickers and the occasional Shirley Temple stamp. She has sent me cards for every holiday, but I most enjoy her general everyday note cards. They are weekly treasures hidden in the piles of junk mail.

Our relationship has blossomed through the year as we’ve gotten to know one another via pen and paper. In the beginning, we talked of family and hobbies. During the holidays, we shared tales of our winter adventures during a snowless season. This spring, we shared stories of our dogs’ escapades chasing various creatures post-hibernation time. And this June, we exchanged updates on our blooming gardens. Our topics have changed with the seasons, but with every card our understanding of each other grows stronger.

Most significantly, Dottie was one of the first folks with whom I shared pregnancy news. (I’m expecting my first child this September.) She has shared her stories of raising eight (EIGHT!) children, four boys and four girls, on a farm where she did all of her own baking and canning. I send her updates of my growing belly and she shares baby names of all of her many grandchildren. And when I finally have this baby this fall, I’m sure Dottie will be one of the first I’ll notify. She has inspired me to be a mom in ways she’ll never know.

I’ve contemplated meeting Dottie in person. It would be wonderful to share a pot of tea and connect with the person behind the mail. However, there’s also something special about keeping our relationship to letters. There’s a certain intimacy and sanctity of handwritten letters back and forth, and forth and back. What if Dottie wasn’t impressed with me in person? What if I found her dog to be irritating and not the perfect pooch I envision?

Perhaps someday we will decide to get together, but for now, I enjoy dropping a letter in a mailbox and imagining where it lands. I picture her farm and her house and her Japanese lilac tree and her kitchen and, of course, her collection of cards. Plus, it’s always fun to wonder if she’s the woman standing next to me at the market, the baseball field or the gas station. I know her so well, and yet, I don’t know her at all.

There’s just something wonderful about having a pen pal. (When I was in elementary school, my grandmother translated letters for me from a second cousin from Poland. To this day — and many years after my grandmother passed away — we still keep in touch.)

In a time when folks can be online predators and anonymous creeps, there’s something wonderful about an innocent relationship with an Upper Valley neighbor asking for nothing more than a returned letter. I’m not sure I would have kept up this relationship with Dottie over email. But over letters stamped with flower stickers, it feels old-fashioned, friendly and fun.

Dottie regularly comments on my newspaper columns, so I’m pretty confident that she’s reading this piece today. So, wherever you are, Dottie, thank you for being my Upper Valley pen pal. Our community is better because of people like you.

Becky Munsterer Sabky lives in Norwich.