It was the most amazing discovery—I was leafing through the latest “Martha Stewart LIVING magazine for May, 2016—primarily in my never-ending quest for recipes and there were a lot of cute cupcakes on the cover—when I came across an article that took me by surprise. It was an article titled how to WRITE A LETTER.

Below that was the caption “In these modern times of instant messaging and email, it’s especially sweet to receive a handwritten and heartfelt note—even more so when it’s adorned in a way that has it bursting out of your mailbox. But you don’t need to be a calligrapher to do this yourself. On these pages, learn how to unleash a simple skill and easily embellish cards and gifts, decorating them with love in every letter….” What follows is Writing/decorating 101 for those of us unfamiliar with making cards and letters stand out.

However, I want to tell LIVING that they are mistaken if they think the entire world has forgotten how to write letters. The following is from a 2012 post on my blog:

Go back with me, in time, and let me share with you how things were before email came along.

I began subscribing to Women’s Circle magazine (not to be confused with Woman’s Day or Family Circle) in the mid-1960s. Specifically, I think I “discovered” Women’s Circle in 1965 and it seems to me that I began finding the magazine on the magazine racks of the supermarket where we shopped, in North Hollywood. Around that same time, I became interested in collecting cookbooks. Simultaneously, a friend of mine told me about a Culinary Arts Institute cookbooklet on Hungarian cuisine that she was searching for.
“I bet I know where we can find it!” I told her. I wrote a letter to Women’s Circle, asking for the cookbook, offering to pay cash. As an afterthought, I added that I was interested in buying/exchanging for old cookbooks, particularly club-and-church cookbooks.

Little did I suspect what an avalanche of mail would fill my mailbox when my letter was published! I received—and responded to—more than 250 letters. We purchased several of the Hungarian cookbooks and I began buying or trading for a lot of other cookbooks which formed the nucleus of my cookbook collection. And I have to tell you something that I think was pretty spectacular—I was never “cheated” or short-changed by anyone. Even more spectacular were the friendships that I formed, as a result of that one letter, which still exist to this day.

One of the first letters I received was from another cookbook collector, a woman who lived in Michigan. Betsy and I—both young mothers at the time (now both of us grandmothers)—have remained pen-pals for over 50 years, while our children grew up, married, and had children of their own. The first time I met Betsy and her husband, Jim, they drove from Michigan to Cincinnati, where I was visiting my parents, to pick up me and my children, so that we could spend a week visiting them in Michigan. A few years later, my friends repeated the gesture – driving hundreds of miles to Cincinnati to pick us up and then returning us to my parents a week or so later. On one of those trips, I took my younger sister Susie along with us and we all have fond memories of going blueberry picking at a berry farm. We visited the Kellogg factory and went to some of the flea markets where you could find hundreds of club-and-church cookbooks for as little as ten cents each (remember, this was the 1960s!). On one of those visits, I met Betsy’s British pen-pal, Margaret, who was also visiting. We had such a wonderful time together.

Around this same time, I responded to a letter written to “Women’s Circle” by an Australian woman (whose name I no longer can recall). She received such a flood of letters from the USA that she took them to her tennis club, spread them out and said “If anyone would like an American pen-friend, here you are!” A young woman named Eileen—who was, like myself, married to a man named Jim, and—like me—also had a son named Steven—chose my letter. We’ve been corresponding ever since. In 1980, when we were living in Florida, we met Eileen and Jim for the first time and from the time they got off the plane and walked up to us, it was just like greeting an old friend or relative. We liked—and trusted—them so much that we lent our camper to them to drive around the USA. When they reached Los Angeles, they contacted, and met, friends of ours who lived in the San Fernando Valley.

About a year later, our friends from California were visiting us in Florida, when the best friends of my Aussie friends (who lived in London) contacted us in Miami and paid us a visit. The following year, when my California friends visited London, they paid a return visit to their new London acquaintances. (I hope you have followed all of this).

Another young woman who wrote to me in the early 1970s was a housewife/mother who lives near Salem, Oregon. She wrote in response to a letter that I had written to Tower Press, noting that we shared the same birthday. I believe they first visited us at our home in Arleta around 1975, on their way to Disneyland. In 1978, my husband and children and I drove to Oregon where we met my pen-pal and her family.

I’ve lost count of the number of times they have visited me in California. In 2007, for the first time, I flew to Oregon where my Oregon penpal and her husband met my flight, and
I spent a week with them. We celebrated our birthdays together—in person–for the first time ever.

Another pen-pal acquired in the 1960s was my friend Penny, who lives in Oklahoma. We first visited Penny and her husband Charles and their three sons in 1971, on our way back to Cincinnati for a summer vacation. We spent a night at Penny’s and were sent on our way the next morning with a bagful of her special chocolate chip cookies. What I remember most about that visit was my father’s baffled reaction when we arrived in Cincinnati. “How,” he asked, “is it that you know these people in Oklahoma?” (The concept of pen-pals was a foreign one to both my parents).

Two other pen-pals were acquired when we moved to Florida. Lonesome and homesick, I wrote yet another letter to Women’s Circle, and mentioned my love of Christmas (and preparing for it all year long). One of these was a woman in Louisiana and the other was an elderly widowed lady who lived in my home state of Ohio. Sadly, I no longer have these two penpals. I know that my Louisiana penpal had a stroke and could no longer write letters; her daughter sent me a letter to let me know.

I don’t know what happened to my Ohio penpal…this is perhaps the downside of having penpals who were twice my age to begin with—when something happens to them, no one lets you know. But, I enjoyed these friendships for over thirty years.

Before everyone owned a computer and Internet services flooded the market – we had Prodigy. The concept of Prodigy, at that time, was to offer bulletin boards devoted to particular topics, to which you could write, and have your letters posted, asking for friends, recipes, whatever. It was through Prodigy that I became acquainted with my friend Pat and her husband Stan. We met for the first time when Bob & I went to the L.A. County Fair one year. Pat & Stan came to visit us at our motel in Pomona; they lived in nearby Covina. Eventually, Prodigy would be overcome by AOL, Earthlink and Verizon—and the dozens of other Internet services which have changed our lives so drastically. I think the one greatest thing about the Internet is that it has brought so many of our family members and friends back together again. And sadly, my friend Pat is now living in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

As for Women’s Circle—the first food-related articles I sold were to this magazine. It was thrilling to see these published. One included photographs that a photographer friend took for me. Then, in 1977, I went back to work full-time and the Tower Press magazines slipped from my radar. But the friendships forged by these magazines have remained an integral part of my life.

And now—going on my seventh year of having a blog, I have been forging friendships through my articles on Sandychatter. I think the love of letter writing, of having penpals and enjoying friendships with like-minded people throughout the world, is so ingrained in all of us, that even though many of us no longer write “real” letters, we have created different kinds of friendships though the internet.

That being said, I still correspond with my Michigan penpal and two of my more recent penpals are Canadian girlfriends with whom I became acquainted in 2006. We have become the best of friends=and correspond by email as well as actual letters—and we have been known to decorate the envelopes from time to time. I am still in contact with my Oklahoma penpal, Penny. I have been corresponding for many years with a penpal who lives in Ithaca, New York who doesn’t have a computer, brought together by our love of cookbooks back in the days of the Cookbook Collectors Exchange.

Doreen, Sharon, and I were three of the women Wendy, editor of the newsletter INKY TRAIL NEWS, put together into a small retiree-email group in January of 2006. Eventually, Doreen & Sharon and I dropped out of the group but by then the three of us had become good friends.

In addition to my meeting Doreen on Mother’s Day in 2008, when she and her husband were on a cruise on which their ship docked for a few hours in Southern California—Bob and I were invited to have lunch with them onboard The Amsterdam–and it was a memorable experience.

Then, later in August of that same year, Sharon flew to California and we took our memorable California Adventure road trip, traveling up the coast, visiting Pismo, San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay—then continuing up the coast and then inland to see the Redwoods—and finally traveling south again to visit Yosemite.

Then, in 2009, I flew to Buffalo where Sharon met my flight and took me to her home in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I enjoyed a memorable vacation with her and discovered much about Canada that I did not know; the upshot of all of this is that the three of us have forged a close relationship even though my two Canadians, Doreen and Sharon, have not met each other in person yet. We’re working on that!

It’s a special occasion that we who have been writing to penpals for years meet in person, with a little trepidation and a lot of eagerness. You’ve been exchanging letters (nowadays mostly emails) and photographs and small gifts for a few years—and now you are going to actually meet in person.

Then, in 2012, Doreen and her husband flew to Arizona (from their home in Canada) and enjoyed several weeks of sightseeing. They drove a rental car to Palm Springs and after a few weeks with Canadian friends there, they drove to the Antelope Valley. We had dinner together at my place on a Tuesday, and the next day, Wednesday, February 8th, the three of us drove to Pismo Beach, one of my favorite places on earth. I had reserved the kitchenette suite at Dolphin Cove so there would be plenty of space for three adults, and took along a cooler filled with bacon, eggs, juice, and other things to make it easy to have breakfast and/or lunch in our suite—or go out to eat if we chose.

There was also an ulterior motive to my wanting to go to Pismo. Bob had mentioned to my daughter in law that he wanted to be cremated when he died, and have his ashes strewn into the ocean there. Bob passed away in September, 2011, after a year of battling cancer. The night of February 8th was clear, with a full moon, and beautiful high tide.

After a lot of soul-searching, I complied with this last wish of Bob’s, who had been my life-partner for 26 years.

Next day, we drove to Morro Bay and walked out to the rock, and then visited San Luis Obispo to have lunch and have some rolls of film developed. Many places have discontinued developing and printing film but I was delighted to find a CVS store across the street from where we parked the car—and they still had the film printing machinery. My CVS store in Lancaster has already removed the film printing machinery —fortunately, a Walmart store near me still offers developing and printing of film to its customers—and the prices are good!

Once, that morning of February 10th 2012, as I was taking pictures, a tiny white feather came slowly floating down and landed at my feet. I looked up and could not see a bird anywhere. I thought it was a gift and put it into my pocket to bring home.

On Friday the 10th, we repacked their van after making breakfast in our kitchenette, and retraced our route from the 101 to the 166, from the 166 to I-5 and from I-5 to the 138 which crosses the Mojave Desert back to Lancaster and Quartz Hill. When we reached my home, Harv unloaded all of my “stuff” and they headed back to their hotel. I invited them back for dinner and made stew out of the leftover roast beef we had enjoyed on Tuesday. We drank another toast to Bob, who—I know—would have enjoyed their visit as much as I did. Well, perhaps he did. Did he go along for the ride spiritually as well?

I put the little white feather in the box Kelly and Keara had purchased for his ashes. It also contains a small vial of Pismo Beach sand.

It has been so gratifying that for most of my adult life, I have had penpals to share it with. Perhaps the evolution of the Internet has changed how penpals communicate with one another—but we have evolved, too, turning in our pens for keyboards—but I hasten to add, there are still letter writers in our world in 2016—notably, my penpal in Australia and I have now been exchanging letters for fifty-one years—ditto my penpal in Michigan and I have been exchanging letters as well as emails for over fifty years.

This is how we write a letter!!

–Sandra Lee Smith


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