by Jerome R. Kinderman – Lodi, CA
At the conclusion of a recent electronic conversation with a childhood friend of mine, he stated, “I do not know about you, but I don’t know how we survived pre email and Internet.” Although I realized that while in many respects he may be correct, in one very important area he might just be wrong. In fact, the arrival of these seemingly innocuous and incredible devices may very well explain much of what has gone awry with interpersonal relationships in our fast-paced, high-tech society. I have often wondered how my life would have been during my last year of high school in the mid 1970s had I had access to the Internet, electronic mail and the much-adored cellular telephone with texting capabilities. Oh how I wish I had had one of those then! Or do I really?
Having attended Girard College, a private 1st through 12th grade school for fatherless boys in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for eight years, the summer of ’73 brought with it changes in me that can never be forgotten. Since my mother had relocated to Biloxi, Mississippi four years prior in order to be closer to her youngest sister, but much further away from her son in Philadelphia, my visits with her were limited to Christmas and summer breaks. Upon arriving on the Gulf Coast that June I wondered just what I might find to do. Clearly, I had no friends in the area as I hadn’t spent enough time there to even establish more than a few – and those were quickly lost after each break when I would return to my real home at Girard. But as I was to soon learn, life has a unique way of turning when one least expects it.
Meeting a girl with whom I would become romantically involved was something that I would never have imagined possible. Time was against me as was the fact that Girard College had not in any way prepared me for such an encounter; nor had my family in Mississippi. In fact, my mother would have rather I stayed in the house and gone nowhere at all – satisfying myself with just her company after she would return from work. But I was much too restless for that. So, it was probably just as well that I was introduced to the son of a woman she worked with; and he in turn introduced me to Mary.
July 4, 1973 held my first date with this incredible girl and from that day forward we were inseparable. It was the direct result of our friendship that had God find His way into my heart, having become a Christian just a few weeks later. Our relationship was everything that a 16-year-old boy could ever want. All the elements were present: love, passion, fun, excitement, love; and God (redundancy intended). But it was that last ingredient that permitted our union to be the sweet and innocent type that (in my humble opinion) all such 16-year-old children should be entitled to enjoy. As the pianist for a youth group at a local church, Mary introduced me to the Youth Pastor (who just so happened to be engaged to one of her older sisters) who then invited me to join their choir to tour various churches from Mississippi through Florida for one week. Imagine – one whole week on a little yellow bus where we could sit together and get to know each other amongst other passionate, exciting, fun-loving and God-loving adolescents. Wow! Life could not have been better.
Of course as the adage suggests, all good things must come to an end, as Mary and I feared would become of us as I prepared to head back to Girard College in September. As time grew short, our feelings for each other only intensified. As the fateful day approached, we both pledged to each other that we would write often and talk whenever funds for a phone call might permit. Once I left it would be just over three months before I would be in her presence again at Christmas – an utter lifetime! While my hopes were high, I understood that the possibility of our keeping the passion and love alive was not realistic. For one thing there were a lot more boys at Mary’s high school (at least a million) than there were girls at Girard College (zero). Nevertheless, I was still looking forward to my last year at what I have always referred to as my childhood home. As an incoming senior, there were many things we had earned – and I was going to enjoy as much of that last year as possible.
I wasn’t really sure what either of us thought would be often enough when it came to our correspondence. Living in the most modernized of all the dormitories on this 42-acre, 125- year-old campus, I shared a room with one classmate adjoined to another such room separated by a common bathroom/shower; just like most college dormitories. My first seven years at Girard never provided for nearly that much privacy, as during my 10th grade year I lived in one dormitory room with no less than 25 other boys. So whenever we received mail, our housemasters would distribute it to us by sliding the letters under our doors to rest on the floor until we returned from class or extra-curricular activities at the end of the day. For me, that would be right before dinner which was served at precisely 5:50 p.m.
After just a few days back, the first letter from Mary arrived. While I certainly hadn’t forgotten about her, I was immersed in the start-up of my last year to such an extent that I hadn’t yet written her one letter. As I saw it lying on the floor, I was consumed with guilt. Upon reading it, I quickly realized that this final year at Girard would be very special indeed. With that initial letter I became the object of much jealousy from my roommate and a few other close friends with whom I hung around. Just who was this Mary, and why would she write to a lug like me? That evening before I started my homework, I penned my first letter to her – and mailed it the following morning. And then things really started to happen.
Upon returning to my room the following evening, there were no less than three letters waiting for me. And by looking at the post-marks it was clear that since the day I left, Mary had written one letter each day thereafter. Yes, there were days when there would be nothing from her, but those were rare and very far between. But the fact is she never missed one day writing to me – not one – during my entire senior year. And from receipt of that first letter from her, neither was she deprived of one days’ correspondence from me. We talked only a few times by telephone, but because of the limitation of privacy, time and money those conversations were usually rushed, short and awkward. Our long-distance relationship would literally depend upon pen, paper and the United States Postal Service – and yes our mutual faith in God.
As the editor of the school newspaper, I had my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter right beside me as I wrote those letters to Mary. But not once did I opt to type my feelings for her, even though it would have been decidedly faster and would help her to understand my thoughts better – my handwriting even then was not very good, especially compared to hers. No, these letters had to be written by hand; anything less would not do.
So, would we have been better off with the Internet, e-mail or the convenience of a cellular phone? One might think so, but I know for certain now our relationship would not have lasted until even Christmas of that year. There’s something very special about receiving a handwritten letter from someone; most of us understand that even today when we find one tucked within the bills and ads that now form the bulk of incoming mail in the majority of American mailboxes. Even a greeting card is somewhat impersonal if the only addition is the signing of one’s name. In my mind I relive those moments reading her beautiful handwriting as it flowed with love, adoration and passion for me and for the God we had both come to love as well. Holding the letters to my face in my mind I still remember her scent mixed with the sentiment that she was so wonderfully able to convey that limited the 1,000 miles between us to nothing more than the width of the paper upon which she wrote her words. Our dedication to one another through the use of a simple pen became so ingrained that upon becoming quite ill and admitted to the school infirmary in February 1974 where I was unable to write to her, I actually asked one of my classmates to do me the greatest favor of writing a short note to let her know that I was sick, but still thinking of her and regretted not writing that one time. I told him where to find her address and where I stored my stamps. He did as I asked. Silly, huh? No, it wasn’t silly then and as I write these words here it certainly doesn’t even begin to sound silly now. Such was the depth of my love for Mary.
Yet even more important is how those letters from Mary kept my focus on my new relationship with God. Residing in an institution that as part of its regulations prohibited the presence of any ordained priest, minister or rabbi, one can only imagine the atmosphere that existed among hundreds of normal teenage boys who had little direction regarding equallynormal human desires. Those near-daily missives wherein Mary clearly understood my predicament were just what I needed to remain secure in my spiritual life. I also know that there were a few of my friends there who at the very least found an interest in Christianity through my experience with Mary through the U.S. Postal Service.
Today’s electronic equivalents to letter writing are nowhere near equal at all. In fact, they’re cold and are simply incapable of conveying the true feelings that only writing by hand can produce. More important, writing just one letter each day sent a much clearer message about how we felt about one another than a daily multitude of e-mail messages or texts from a cell phone could even begin to articulate. My schedule carved out one special time each evening when I gathered all of my thoughts for her, sat down at my desk, re-read whatever letter I might have received that day, and devoted my time, energy and love to her in a way that I cannot imagine ever being able to duplicate again. In my mind then I saw her sitting at her little desk in her room so far away doing the same thing for me – and after 35 years it still brings memories that cause my eyes to well up – much the same way I felt when reading the many letters that I received from Mary between September 1973 and June 1974.
The Postal Service is on the brink of bankruptcy, as is the moral condition of our nation. Nearly gone is the art and intimacy that only hand-written letters are able to afford. I am actually thankful that I had nothing more than my pen, paper, stamps and my faith to keep our relationship alive during that incredibly wonderful year. I would like to report that our love withstood time; but sadly it did not. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying; there were other elements that stood in our way that had nothing to do with technology that had us go our separate ways. I do often wonder how my first true love is doing; where she might be; hoping that she is happy. I still remember her address; I wonder how she would feel if she were to receive just one more handwritten letter from me. But that would be unfair; there’s no going back. But it’s certainly not too late for any one of us to communicate our deepest thoughts and feelings for those we care about most through the use of a low-tech, but love-filled letter. One thing is for sure, it couldn’t hurt.