I grew up as a forestry brat, moving every few years to whichever sawmill my dad was managing at the time. It was never easy for me to leave the friends that I had made. I was only in elementary school, but I constantly felt like my peers were being ripped away from me, never to be seen again.
Long distance phone calling was expensive, so that was reserved for family members only. My dad was on the road a lot, so he would often send postcards to me and my sister from wherever his travels took him that week. They always included a short anecdote about something funny that happened and a reminder to obey our mother.
As a kid, getting mail is so much fun. Whether it’s a birthday card (hopefully with a crisp $5 tucked inside), or a package, there’s a delight to getting something in the mail. I honestly don’t think that elation ever goes away, now that we also get non-fun things like bills and jury duty summonses.
My friend Amy moved to Nevada in fourth grade. I was devastated. My mom suggested writing her letters. We wrote back and forth regularly for a while. I really enjoyed it and was sad when I noticed that I no longer got any letters from Elko, Nevada. I was never sure if she had moved or just had nothing to say.
When we moved to New Mexico at the beginning of 5th grade, I was determined to stay in touch with my friends. I left everyone with our new address and sent updates from the middle of nowhere, sharing how weird it was to live in such a small village, and going to a school that had as many students in the whole school as the entire 5th grade class I had left behind. I got a packet of letters from my entire class at one point, and that was delightful. After a period of time, those letters stopped as well.
When we moved back to Flagstaff a couple of years later, I left again with two pen pals—my best friend Odelia and my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. T. Given my previous experience with pen pals, I didn’t expect that either of these would last for too long. I think Odelia and I kept in touch through 7th grade and when her dad passed away, I stopped hearing from her all together.
You might think it’s weird to be pen pals with a former teacher when you’re all of twelve years old. But Mrs. T. and I had a very special relationship. I never felt like I belonged in Reserve. Compared to where we were living, I was a “city kid.” I had a group of friends, but even that seemed to change from week to week. Although I’ve always been in advanced classes, in Reserve, I was hailed as some sort of genius. The reality was that I had already learned most of the things the school was teaching when I arrived.
Mrs. T. saw that. She always made sure that I was challenged by the work that she was assigning. She definitely noticed my affinity for books and was always suggesting new things to read. She was really cool in that she was always encouraging us to follow our natural curiosity. I have to say my most memorable lesson was when she caught a scorpion at her house and brought it in to see how it would fare against our classroom vinegaroon (Vinny). I’m sorry to say that Vinny put up a valiant fight, but ultimately succumbed to the sting of the scorpion.
Basketball was a big part of life in Reserve, so we spent a lot of time at basketball games. From what I can remember, I usually sat with Mrs. T. and her husband (which may or may not have had anything to do with the ginormous crush I had on their son, who was on the team). I had come to see her as more than a teacher, she was a friend and mentor.
When sixth grade was over, both my family and the T’s knew that we would no longer be in Reserve. When I moved, I sent letters to their ranch about the books I was reading and she would send postcards from home or wherever it was that their vacation took them. I’d send letters about school and marching band and she’d send letters about teaching at the University of New Mexico.
I still have one of my favorite postcards she ever sent me: a slab of redwood that was imprinted with the quote, “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” It had gotten completely destroyed by the post office in transit and showed up at my house in a baggie, splintered to bits, but it was nothing that a little wood glue couldn’t fix.
We’ve shared our life’s moments over the years. She sent me pictures from her son’s wedding. I invited her to my graduation, which was the first time I’d seen her since the end of sixth grade. We exchanged letters when I went off to college, and when I moved to Seattle. I heard about each of her grandchildren when they were born. When I moved to Denver, they happened to be in town for March Madness and UNM was playing, so we got together for breakfast. We hadn’t seen each other since I graduated high school, but it was like no time had passed.
When I had Alissa, my life got increasingly more chaotic. We moved around a lot and I stopped writing letters for a few years. One Christmas, I was home visiting and my mom gave me a stack of mail. In it, I was quite surprised to find a Christmas card from Mrs. T. The familiar handwriting brought a smile to my face and I was excited to respond..
We exchanged email addresses and sort of kept up our correspondence for a bit that way, and then she retired from teaching. We had connected on Facebook when it first began to get popular, but it never really became a way for us to keep up with each other. Sending letters always had a special magic to it that digital communication just doesn’t have.
Several years passed and we lost touch. When my parents got divorced, I was going through a box of photos and came across an old letter from Mrs. T. It brought me a sense of joy I didn’t know I needed to feel at that moment. Knowing that she was retired and probably traveling the world, I took a chance that maybe, just maybe, the address I’d had memorized for 20 years was still good. I dropped a letter in the mail to say hi and send a few updates.
A few days later, I received a response in return. I couldn’t believe it. I was overjoyed. We caught up on life’s changes over the previous years and have stayed in touch ever since. Although it’s been somewhat irregular on my part, it’s nice to be in touch. In fact, we’ve exchanged several cards and postcards since the pandemic rocked our world, and when I heard that the theme this month was letter writing, I knew exactly who I was going to write about.
Susan and I have been exchanging letters for nearly 30 years now. Over the years, her letters and postcards have ignited my love of travel, helped me discuss world events, and most importantly, maintain an unlikely friendship. I never expected that, after all this time, my sixth grade teacher would be my best pen pal.
Please check out these amazing writers and their posts on this month’s theme: Letter Writing
Everything is “A Lot” Right Now by Kristin Rouse
A Letter to Who I Used to Be by Mia Sutton
To My Son by Sarah Hartley
To the Man Who’ll Carve My Headstone by Liz Russell
An Open Letter to People of Color by Amy Clark
The Lost Art of Letter Writing by Amy Rich
Returned Letters by Jenny Surgenor
A Letter to You by Mala Kennedy
When I Remember This Summer by Ashleigh Bowling