ON THIS DAY 17 years ago, I had a historic meeting with my pen-pal Carol, whom I wrote to as a child. Our meeting took place at St. Enoch in central Glasgow, Scotland (Europe’s biggest indoor glass shopping complex) amidst a flurry of people rushing with their Christmas shopping. We caught up on lost times over tea and later adjourned to Queen St. Station where she saw us off after a round of cappuccino.
When I first arrived in Leeds for my postgraduate studies that year, I made it a mission to track her down. It had been eight years since we lost touch. I had no means to hire a private investigator, so I simply wrote a postcard to her old address which I knew by heart all these while having written to her for seven years. I least expected a reply, but miracle does happen, for one day a letter arrived from Carol. A neighbour had apparently gotten hold of my postcard and rang Carol who had moved away.
That winter, as I was on my way to Scotland for a HOST family stay, I asked to meet up with Carol. I was with a friend and Carol came with her daughter Danielle (then 5) and David (then 2). We remained in touch for a while after that. When I was in Washington DC in 1998, she wrote to say that she was expecting her third child. Unfortunately we lost touch again soon after.
Anyway, I found these photos in an album recently and showed them to Michelle. When I told her about Carol and my other pen-pals, she asked alarmingly, “How do you know they are genuine people?” Hmm, good question. After all, I always caution her about whom she chats online with, warning her that these “friends” might not be whom they claim to be.
I struggled to answer daughter’s question. I was a little younger than her when I first had pen-pals, but it never occurred to me they could be anyone otherwise. I suppose we didn’t have such bad intentions then, or we were simply just too naïve. At least I was.
I inherited my pen-pals from my older sisters. When my sisters received numerous replies from pen-pals from the UK, they passed some to me. So I ended up with Carol and Karen (both from Scotland) and Wendy-Jane (from England).
I still have 12 letters from Karen, and eight from Wendy-Jane. We might have written more or we could have just stopped there, I can’t remember. For sure, we’d lost touch yet I’ve kept their letters, each meticulously numbered.
Karen’s first letter was addressed to my sister, dated 19 September 1979. It cost 15p then. And she even sent a photo of herself! In a one-page small notepad, she wrote that she was 11, introduced her family, where she went to school, her hobbies being swimming, reading and music and listed her favourite popstar as Billy Idol and John Travolta. She ended with “I hope you write back”.
It was I who wrote back to her, and she replied saying, “I was very glad to receive your letter. My mum and dad said you were a very bonnie girl. I was thrilled to receive your wonderful gifts.” Gees, I guess I must have sent her a photo of myself too! “Bonnie” I just learnt is Scottish in origin, and it means “pretty or attractive”. They were obviously very nice and diplomatic…I was never pretty or attractive, more so as a kid! Or did I send her someone else’s photo???
And wonderful gifts? They were probably stickers, for I can’t afford anything else. Stickers were light enough to send without additional postage. And we were into stickers then (in fact, I still have my childhood stickers collection, but I’ll leave that for another time), and we collected stamps too, that’s why we have pen-pals, right, so we could keep the stamps.
Through our correspondences, I learnt that she had a fat cat called Candy, what she got for her birthday in September; that she liked to watch Grange Hill on TV, had German measles in February 1980 and that her best friend Catherine got it too. She also shared a lot of personal information and private thoughts. I suppose if I were to put all those details online today, I could easily track her down if I wanted to!
Karen was quite an artist and would draw pictures on her letters, and separately of herself in her school uniform, sports attire and even in pyjamas (I suppose in lieu of photos). And talkative too, for once she talked so much in English class that her teacher ordered, “Karen, get out into the front of the class and take your seat with you.”
Other than exchanging gifts and topics of interests, Karen also gave me a spoiler on Dallas. In her letter dated March 1981, she revealed that, “JR was shot and it was Kristin who shot him. Everyone was accusing Sue Ellen. She had been drinking and she believed it was her, but Kristin accused her as well.” For the uninitiated, Dallas was the longest running American soap opera last century that kept many household mesmerised to the TV for years, especially its cliffhanger “Who Shot JR?”.
With that letter, Karen gave me another cliffhanger. Summer came and left, I never heard from her again!
Wendy-Jane was 10 when we corresponded. She lived in Cumbria, loved reading, writing and tap dancing. She wrote, “Have you ever seen Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly? That would give you an idea of the type of dancing I do.” Along with her older sister, they danced for competitions and also for charity. Her favourite singers were Cliff Richards, Kenny Rogers, Susie Quatro and Kate Bush. She even sent a newspaper clip of Kate Bush. Back then, I thought Kate was named after the style of her hair.
Wendy-Jane also enjoyed watching Dallas, Vegas and The Incredible Hulk. Once she asked “Have you got a new programme on tv called Punchlines on Granada?” Obviously we didn’t and I didn’t even know what Granada was.
By sheer coincidence, years later, I found myself visiting the places she had mentioned in her letters, including York, Blackpool and Manchester where I took a picture outside Granada TV.
With pen-pals (then), we were able to indulge in writing childish expressions like “Guess who?” or “Smile before you open” on the back of the envelopes. Remember those? Childish indeed.
I trust kids today who are used to sending messages with the click of a mouse, and receiving an instant reply, will not be able to understand how we survived those snail mail days. Indeed, looking back, it was torturous to have to wait for weeks if not months just to receive a 2-3 page letter. Then again it gave you something to look forward to, and when a letter finally came, the euphoric feeling was all worth it!
Left: These letters bearing British postage stamps were reasons to look out for the postman then; Right: A 2-page letter was such a reward after a long and patient wait.
As for Carol, my longest pen-pal, I most definitely kept all her letters, it’s just that for the life of me I can’t recall which box they’ve been stashed in.
Letters and photos from Carol, and this particular stamp was definitely a keeper… if only I knew where the letters are!