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Saturday, February 16, 2013

My perspective: The world in a mailbox (redux)

[Every six weeks or so I write an essay for the Zion-Benton News, our weekly newspaper. This was published February 14.]
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Who doesn’t like to get mail?  Not bills and legal notices, but rather greeting cards for holidays and birthdays, postcards from travelers,  and “I’m thinking of you; how are you doing?” letters from faraway friends.  Even in this era of social media when a photo posted on Facebook informs a hundred of your nearest and dearest of where you are and what you’re doing, there’s a thrill to getting a hand-addressed, stamped envelope in the metal mailbox outside your front door.  

The recent announcement that the Postal Service proposes cutting Saturday mail delivery took me back decades.   When I was a teenager I had pen pals.  Many of them.   

“I want to be an author and live in Scotland,” I wrote to ‘Teen magazine’s pen pal column.  That sentence and my name and address were published in the January, 1966, issue, when I was in  8th grade.   The letters began to arrive in mid-December and continued steadily for two months.  One day I counted 35!    I heard from teens about my age from nearly every state.   The idea of a “thanks but no thanks” form letter never occurred to me.  I hand-wrote responses to many and used up every stamp in the house until my parents gently suggested that I could use my baby-sitting money to buy a supply for myself. 

At the same time I learned about an agency that matched international pen pals.  I met teens in Korea, Malta, Sri Lanka, Sweden, France, and Israel.  I quickly learned about aerogrammes , those pre-stamped, fold-over letters that were cheaper than regular postage.
Some of the correspondents fell away.   It takes emotional energy to cultivate any friendship, including epistolary  acquaintance.  But through high school I shared the triumphs and disappointments of adolescence with Beth in St. Paul, Mary Beth in New Cumberland, Elizabeth Ann in Texas, Lynn in Indiana, and Margaret in Chisholm – and Karin in Stockholm, Bernadette in Normandy, and Tae Sung in Seoul.  I managed to meet all the U.S. pen pals at least once, and I’ve reconnected with them with  Google address searches and Facebook.

This ZB News column is the second time I’ve written about my pen pals.  On Sunday, February 23, 1969, my essay “The World in a Mailbox” was published in the “young voices” column in the Chicago Tribune.  I was paid $40 and was honored at a luncheon at the Union League Club for that year’s teen essayists.   That’s the first and so far the only time I’ve been published in the Tribune.  

Writing this column has inspired me to start a new project.  Each month for the next year I will send a hand-written “thinking of you” note to a friend, far or near.  It may not be delivered on a Saturday, but I hope it will brighten the recipient’s day and inspire her to pay it forward.


  1. Many people don't know about this site but if you go to and register, you can get the name and address of a person to send a post card to, often in another country. Now, there is a Forever stamp for international mail, so there is no need to have to find out what the proper postage is. I've received postcards from China, Russia, Poland, and Macao! It's a great way to meet new people and some of them become more.

  2. When my husband and I travel I like to buy post cards and send those to friends and family.

  3. I love that idea and I might just join you in that.

  4. I couldn't have written that "post" any better than you did.

    i would say 'ditto' to everything you wrote.... with a few minor changes... i too had penpals when i was younger. what an absolutely marvelous hobby and way to arm-chair travel.

    love love love it!!!!


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