Aerograms, a Pen Pal, and a War by
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Prompted By Snail Mail

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When I was in middle school and high school, before there was Twitter and Facebook, one way to learn about people around the world was to have a pen pal. I don’t know who set this up, but I believe the synagogue, where I was taking confirmation classes, had a program to match American students with Israeli students.

I mostly remember taking my fountain pen and writing tiny, neat lines to cram the most onto the aerogram sheet.

My pen pal was Varda Goldberg. She was my age, I think, about 14 at the time. We wrote introductory letters. To save postage, we used aerogram paper, a remarkably thin blue sheet that folded into its own envelope. We wrote about the usual topics of interest to 14-year-old girls: school, foreign language studies, where and how we lived, and occasionally boys. I could read Hebrew haltingly but couldn’t use it to communicate. Varda’s English was very good.

Time has blurred the details of Varda. I mostly remember taking my fountain pen and writing tiny, neat lines to cram the most onto the aerogram sheet. Then, I’d wait weeks to get a response (grandparents out there, tell that to your grandchildren to get a laugh).

The major issue I remember in the letters to Varda was the 1967 war. It was amazing to me that she experienced conflict in such a small country, and I gained some gratitude about living safely in the US. Eventually Varda would have to go in the army! In the following year, we both became preoccupied with our high school activities, and letters became less frequent and eventually stopped.

While I appreciate the convenience of today’s communication, I do miss having letters to save, buying a new package of stationery, and the kinesthetic pleasure of handwriting. It was rewarding to share and learn about Varda, in a country that seemed very far away at the time.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: moving

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I never had a pen pal, but think your experience was a wonderful, personal way to learn first-hand about another country from the perspective of someone your own age. And after you read my story, you will see that my family, too, got aerograms home from Israel, right after the 1967 war.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Marian, I remember those aerograms. We wrote to my aunt and cousins in Israel, and I had to compose my letters slowly to ensure everything fit into the space provided and was readable. I also had a pen pal for a while, but I don’t even remember her name. I think it was someone in Spain through my high school Spanish class. And you are right, my grandkids can’t imagine a time without instant communication.

    • Marian says:

      I guess there must have been a pen pal system, Laurie. Would have been fun to have one from through my French class. I doubt my niece has ever written a letter, although she does respond to texts. It’s definitely not the same!

  3. I guess “pen pals” per se are near obsolete since so few people use pen and paper to write any more. I love your use of the word “kinesthetic” in relation to writing. There’s nothing like the sound and feel of the scratch of a pen across paper. Letter writing may become a lost art, especially since I understand many schools have stopped teaching cursive. Still, my husband gave his granddaughter a beautiful fountain pen for her graduation…his idea, and I thought it was perfect. One of the things he and I have in common is that, even in our youth, both of us enjoyed stationery stores more than candy stores.

    • Marian says:

      I love stationery stores too, Barbara. Did you know that there are scientific studies that have shown that we learn better when we take notes with pen and paper instead of a computer? Supposedly something about the kinesthetic imprinting of writing helps us remember information. Fountain pens have their use!

  4. Suzy says:

    Love this story about your pen pal, Marian. I have a vague recollection of getting pen pals in school, but mine obviously wasn’t as memorable as yours. Like Barbara, I love your use of the word “kinesthetic.” I still have a drawer full of boxes of stationery, partially used long ago, and not likely to be used again, but I can’t bear to part with them. I miss that time and those pleasures too. Thanks for suggesting this prompt!

    • Marian says:

      A lot of us are of one mind on stationery, Suzy, and I can understand why you wouldn’t want to part with it. One of my favorites is a pad from Hugh’s daughter (remember him from a couple of stories?), who was an artist. She made the sheets herself. Alas, she died young, so it has a special place in my heart.

  5. Nice memory Marian!
    I too had a penpal in school, must have been in French class as I (supposedly) wrote to her in French, and she to me in English.
    It was short-lived and alas I remember little, and alas my French is still pretty bad.
    But “pen-pals” is a lovely idea , I guess now it’s probably called “e-pals”!

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Dana. I hadn’t thought of e-pals, but that could work to connect young people who otherwise wouldn’t communicate.

      • Yes Marian,
        I don’t know why some pooh-pooh email as a way to communicate, I think can be just as effective as writing letters.
        And altho we may miss the look of pen on ink and the joy of seeing a familiar handwriting, email is today’s technology, we can’t wish it away, and may as well embrace it!

  6. Risa Nye says:

    Really enjoyed reading this, Marian. I ended up with some of my family’s long distance correspondence written on thin onion skin paper, with postage that cost six cents!

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