The Lost Art of Penpals

Once upon a time, I was a little girl making trips to Louisiana for the summer from Ohio by plane. I would get to board first with the flight attendant (then called “stewardess), and of course, deplane last and be escourted to the gate where I was I handed off to the family member picking me up. I collected a whole box full of plastic wing pins and buttons from Delta. I speedily read through the Sky Mall and all of the in-flight reading material before busting out my own book, crossword puzzles or word searches, and my trusty CD player.

As I was a chatty little thing, and didn’t have any companions on these trips, I easily made friends with the people sitting next to me on the hour and a half flight from CVG to MSY and back. One nice lady shared her popcorn with me, while another gave me a Susan B. Anthony coin that I treasured for years. Flight attendants and crew loved me – so much so that on a tiny flight once, I was led into the cockpit and hung out with the pilots for about half an hour, telling them my life story.

But there was one flight, and one particular woman that I formed a connection with that lasted more than just a flight. On one of my trips down to NOLA, I sat next to this older lady, someone that could be my grandmother. Of course, my whole story came spilling out within minutes – how I was born in Louisiana, but now live in Ohio, I was visiting my biological dad, I go every summer, blah blah blah. Mercedes Duplantis, short gray hair and glasses, wearing a flowered shirt, was was from Chauvin, La. I heard her story, too, all about her kids, grandkids and husband. By the end of the flight, we had exchanged our home addresses, saying that we’d keep in touch.

As Rick says in Casablanca, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

For years after, Mercedes and I exchanged letters every few months. I told her about school, my family and how I wanted to be a writer someday. She told me about her grandkids growing up and how her husband was getting sicker over the years. When my grandmother died, she sent me a card of sympathy.

A few years ago around Christmas, we had a message on our answering machine – it was Mercedes. Her husband Lloyd had just passed, and she was wishing me a merry Christmas. It had been awhile since I had written her – I’m not sure how soon I did after that phone call.

In 2005, I received another letter. It was written by someone, I think a volunteer at the nursing home she was now in. She reminded me of her husband’s passing, and told me that she had been afflicted with cancer, and a broken hip. Her last line asked me to write her sometime. Her name was the only thing in her handwriting.

I came across that letter last night, as I was going through other cards and letters stored in the bottom drawer of my nightstand. I remembered our penpal years fondly, and looked at the date, and felt bad that it had been so long since we had talked. I couldn’t remember if I had ever written her back, but I immediately got out some stationary, and stamped an envelope, and put it and the letter in my bag to take to work. I was going to call the nursing home and see if she was still there first.

This morning, I Googled her to see what I could find. First, I found the obituary for her husband, so I sighed in relief when I saw that she was a survivor of his passing. But then I looked a little more – she had indeed passed in December 2005, only 6 months after she wrote me her final letter.

I told my mom, who knew of my penpalship with Mercedes – this kind woman who listened to a little girl’s story on a plane and became a confidant through pen and paper. I said that I felt bad because I couldn’t remember if I had ever written her back – and why did it take me this long to realize it? She said that knowing me, I probably did write to Mercedes once more.

I may never know the answer to that. And maybe it doesn’t matter. I know that Mercedes was loved very much by her large family, and that it was nothing for her to write to me, as if I was her own granddaughter. I never saw Mercedes again after that flight years ago. But I hope she knows how much of an impact she made on my life as I grew up, just through a little snail mail.

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