One year in grade school, we had to write a personal letter as an assignment and were each given the name of a kid to write to in a class far away in a foreign country, the United States of America.
I took great care in composing my letter not only to ensure a good grade but to provide a friendly, inviting and topical read for the recipient. When I got a letter back, I was excited but also surprised at the limited length and scope of the reply. This couldn’t have been more than a C- for this poor kid. We were encouraged to continue the correspondence and so I wrote back. I never got a reply and moved on to other disappointments.
My parents, being people of letters, could have taught this kid something about writing. Dad has his journals, Mom’s a letter writer and they're both worth much more than their weight in xu at Scrabble.
In 1944, when my father was 16 years old, he was one of many who contracted tuberculosis which was rampant at the time. The prize for a diagnosis of this sort was a free ticket to the sanatorium.
Although treatments included fresh air therapy, the main attempt at remedy was through complete bed rest. From the ages of 16 to 21, my father spent most of his time in a hospital bed. I can only imagine the toll a theft like that would have taken on me.
To help pass the time, there was a pen pal program at the hospital and patients were encouraged to write letters. My Dad got matched with someone in South Africa and before long they were learning about each other and their worlds. The letters became something nice to look forward to.
Dad also began looking forward to visits from a young hospital worker who’d begun working there. My mother had begun work at the TB hospital to support herself after leaving home at 17. In my Dad, she definitely had a captive audience and put her charms to work.
Although not deeply religious until some time later, my mother was skeptical that the Lord would approve of her visiting a fortune teller when her friends suggested it as a lark one day. She tagged along but felt guilty and parked the things the fortune teller told her that day in the back of her mind should any of them ever come to pass.
My Dad began to show improvement over time and was eventually proclaimed cured. He was asked to pose for before and after photos for a health campaign and these showed him in bed and then up and working in the on site woodshop, a paragon of health.
Years of laying in a hospital bed had one lasting effect on my Dad. All that bed rest caused a muscle contracture in one of his legs and left him with a slight limp. It’s barely perceptible now but my mother used to love to dramatically lower her voice while telling us kids what the fortune teller had told her that day: You will marry a man with a limp.
As for the South African pen pals, my parents still exchange cards, letters and news. Several years ago, one of their daughters visited and eventually settled here in Canada.
I’ll probably never know who my disappointing American pen pal was. Wait a minute, how old is George W.?