The world became a much more accessible place for me, way before the internet brought us into each other’s living rooms.
I wonder if there are others, born in the 1950s, who have traditional comics and snail-mail to thank for their first contact with anyone from abroad?
From the age of seven, I looked forward to Thursdays because that was the day my weekly comic landed on the doormat. The comic was called, ‘Judy’. I read it from cover to cover and each year, on my birthday, with the 7/6d (seven shillings and sixpence) I accrued in birthday gifts from my Great Aunt and my Grandparents, I would purchase the Judy Annual from the local news agents.
My birthday falls the day after Halloween, hence, the shop still displayed unsold Halloween masks and witches’ hats, stacked high like so many traffic cones, as I walked in. With Guy Fawkes’ night only days away, an array of brightly coloured fireworks would lie beneath the glass-topped counter while posters adorned the walls with the message,
“Remember, remember the fifth of November!”
My eyes would feast on these only for a moment.
The Christmas annuals would rest in a pile on the shelf behind, freshly in from the printers. The shopkeeper would pop mine into a brown paper bag and hand it to me with a smile. In return, I would proffer the five shiny shillings and the silver half-crown that I had received from my relatives and believe it to be a worthy trade. For this was the jewel in the crown – an annual dedicated to my weekly magazine.
Despite the joy of owning the annual, the pleasure I got from reading those weekly comics remained undiminished. The wait for the latest instalment of a long running serial was made deliciously unbearable. Who wanted the story to ever end? Not me, that’s for sure. Ballerinas fighting for a place at ballet school in Prague, mysteries surrounding school trips to Budapest, all kept my imagination in fine shape with Bobby Dazzler’s antics guaranteed to make me smile.
It’s a shame we all get so much junk mail these days. I believe it has almost spoilt the thrill of finding a letter or long-awaited publication on the mat. Most of my mail is electronic now, though I do subscribe to a writers’ magazine that is delivered monthly, and I still feel that frisson of excitement when I see it lying there, pristine, untouched and ready to be read.
By the time I approached my tenth birthday, I had replaced ‘Judy’ with ‘Bunty’. Previously my sister’s preferred read, it had long been my favourite of the comics and was an inheritance from her when she moved to something more worthy of her teen years.
Some time in 1968, I was reading the letters’ page when I spotted an article, just a paragraph deep, offering readers the chance to find a pen friend in America. I filled in the form, included details of my preferred hobbies and begged a stamp (a second-class English stamp) from my mother and posted it. It didn’t matter that the address was a foreign one. It did not occur to me that the postage would be too little. I felt confident I would receive a reply.
The weeks went by.
I all but forgot about the form I had sent off.
The letter that dropped onto my mat, many weeks later, carried an airmail sticker and a foreign looking stamp. I gazed at it with mounting excitement. I expected it to be from the Pen Friend Association. Opening it carefully, I was stunned to see that the letter inside had been written by an eleven year old girl in Minnesota, USA. This letter was from my very first pen friend!
Kathy was my age and apparently shared my interests in reading and writing. She had a younger sister and a younger brother. I drank in this information and marveled that my letter had found its way, not only to the address I had sent it to, but also to this other girl in the United States who had written back to me. The concept was amazing.
This is Kathy and her younger sister, Beth in 1968 – the first photograph she ever sent me. I do hope they wont mind me publishing it here.
Our correspondence outlasted our school days and it wasn’t until the birth of my third child that I lost touch with Kathy for a while. She had gone on to University and was now a journalist working on a local newspaper. We moved house too and somewhere, along the way, me busy with a growing family, her with a burgeoning career, our correspondence lapsed.
In the meantime, just a few years later, the internet invaded our lives and I became aware that it might be possible to track down my friend via the various websites devoted to journalism. I sent queries to a couple of sites and to my amazement, the Dean of one of the universities, himself a member of the site, wrote back to me. He remembered Kathy well and gave me the name of the company for which she now worked, GANNETT the publishing giant in the USA.
I was about to track down my pen friend.
Gannett’s website was vast. It was fortuitous that Kathy was actually listed on the roll-call of Staff Recruitment Managers. The Dean had thought to tell me that she now went by the name of Kate rather than Kathy. There she was, in black and white, Kate Kennedy. I hoped this was the same Kate who had sent me the photo aged eleven.
My email was sent and within a few hours back came a reply.
Yes, it was she. We were in touch once again.
Kate was married now and had a son the same age as my youngest. The boys attempted to correspond for a while via email. They were only four years old so their correspondence was sporadic at best. Here is one missive my son sent to Kate’s son, complete with typos and suspect spellings:
While the boys’ correspondence lapsed, ours moved up a notch. I no longer had to wait weeks for a reply to a letter. I could expect a reply within the day. We swapped news and photos at will and vowed not to lose touch for so long, again.
More recently, we have renewed our acquaintance through LinkedIn and Facebook. We follow one another’s lives through the social networking sites and no longer wait for the sound of a letter dropping onto the mat. The little boys who struck up an email conversation aged 4, are now both at University. Kate is a Media Relations Manager, for the Society for Human Resource Management. I am a writer and Director of a Design and Communications company, and, most recently, a Grandmother.
We have still to meet in person. One day, we will we hope. Meanwhile, I look back at our correspondence across the years with a smile. How far we have both come!
To me, as an eleven-year old child, America seemed a distant part of the world. It was fantastic to think that someone living in Caledonia, Minnesota, knew of my existence. The presents we swapped, the news we shared, all were done at a pace we might laugh at today.
Yet, as I browse the social networking sites or pick up an email, I feel a nostalgic yearning for the old days, when sealing the envelope and sticking on a stamp before walking down the road to pop it into the post box, made one feel as though one had achieved something. I savour the memories of finding a small white envelope lying on the mat, adorned with an airmail sticker, and scooping it up in anticipation of having questions I had asked weeks ago, answered, of finding photographs connecting me with my friend across the ocean.
I can be confident that Kate will read this post. I am sure she will agree that we have both come a long way since being eleven-year old girls but there is something very comforting about the fact that we have followed each other for much of that time both with and without the aid of the internet.
All this because of Bunty.
I still have a stack of those old letters, stowed away at the back of my wardrobe in a box. So, I was able to pull out a couple for the purpose of writing this post. I see I have steamed off stamps from the earlier missives – testament to my days of stamp collecting – and the envelopes are now yellowed and fading but I scanned a few in, just to remind us of the children we once were and of the wonders of snail mail!