In my life, I’ve had pen pals, many times. Every card, every letter is now stored in a heavy cardboard box with partially crushed corners, on it scribbled “Ingrid age 0 to 30.” My cousin Anita, pronounced with the T (ah-nee-Tah), not the American sounding D (ah-nee-Dah), lives in Norway. She and I have exchanged letters via post for our whole lives, since the age of 5. By the time she was 7, her letters were written in English. Mine were never in Norwegian. When my oldest sister was at art school in Milan and I was stuck being 10 years younger, I’d write her. I’d send her tapes of me talking too. I’d hit record on blank tapes, quickly whispering a breaking news report, reminding her of the violence she left behind in our childhood home. I also had a pen pal in my 20′s, the guitar player of an English punk band. We’d exchange letters, records.
Are letters written or notes passed in developed countries anymore? It seems so nostalgic, like paying cash, counting out exact change or having a signature that’s legible.
Back in the late 90′s, I started writing nonsense letters to companies whose products I liked. I liked this huge ice cream sign I kept seeing so I wrote Hershey’s and told the right person there that I’d like one of those four-foot double-sided signs, please; the one picturing a giant cone with one scoop strawberry and the second mint chocolate chip. That sign was delivered to a coffee shop in Society Hill (Philadelphia) bearing a white label with my name on it for me to collect it. The shop owner confused, me happily prancing down 4th street, proud that I got it for nothing more than a stamp and 75 words. It’s now in my attic, keeping the box of letters with the crushed corners company.
I wrote Heinz and informed them of this:
Dear Heinz Ketchup,
Me and my best friend Brooke, well… we love your ketchup. We love it so much, we will walk straight out of diners, flipping over tables as we leave if they do not serve the world’s greatest condiment. Viva la Heinz Ketchup!
Heinz sent me cookbook pamphlets, two each for me and Brooke, in which was probably the best meatloaf recipe of all time and an iron-on (with a 70s rather lewd image of ketchup being squeezed out of a bottle). Nonsense letter writing was simple, stupid fun.
During those years, I watched endless amounts of the Golden Girls. Was it some sort of security blanket for me in my early twenties, maybe because nobody that old ever cared about me? Who knows… I wrote them all, telling them why I thought they each played their character so flawlessly. I got a signed 8 x 10 from all, except Bea Arthur. Betty White wrote on hers “Ingrid, Thanks for watching, Love, Betty White.”
One morning, when I was 25, I was getting myself ready for work. As usual, I had the Golden Girls on as background company. I was working as a sales girl at the time, selling VERY expensive furniture. I was really just a giant dress-up doll for the store’s gay owners. I always had to wear “at least” three-inch high heels as part of the dress code, on concrete floors no less. I thought that was so bad-ass in its incorrectness, to enforce the wearing of high heels. I never really sold anything. I’m a terrible salesperson. But, I sat on very fine furniture and did what I do most of the time: think and daydream.
That morning, I was foolishly perfecting my look of the moment; something like Jane Russell meets Princess Diana’s infamous, see-through, librarian-ish skirt. My shoulder length hair, accidentally dyed jet black, was in hot rollers. I was smoking my first cigarette of the day, waiting for my morning breakfast ritual (two slices of the wonderful and pricy Petit Basque on crusty Metropolitan Bakery bread with half an apple) to assume perfect room temperature. My Mom called and asked if I was watching TV. My voice high, I laughed, surprised she knew. “How’d you know? I’m watching the Golden Girls.” She told me to turn on any other channel. It was the morning of 9/11.
I never watched the Golden Girls again. I stopped writing nonsense letters too.
I didn’t start writing today, with this day in mind. I wasn’t thinking about why I stopped watching that show or writing stupid letters before. I never saw that these events collided in my timeline. I just wanted to brag about my glossy 8 x 10′s and the giant ice cream sign which I don’t care about anymore. Upon writing this, I realize that not everything is huge and sobering in its after-effects, that sometimes it’s sobering how the little things change in a person. Maybe the stupid, novel fun stops? I wonder… how much, cumulatively, do all the little shifts in a nation’s people, after such an event, make them cold, fearful, afraid or shamed-sober out of having silly fun?
It’s a good question, one I am going to think about, and wonder how much of that day is responsible for the plain lack of lightness I see around me. There is a sterility, a stiffness sitting like a storm cloud that never rains over this country. I sense a great deal of resistance to any suggestion of merry-making, of silliness for silliness’ sake. Only recently have I been able to get back to my own goofiness, my own playfulness. Just like weeds that demand to be seen, my heart is begging me to play, telling me to go sit in a canoe in a bog I like very much in the Pine Barrens and stare at the sky while the kids are in school, play with my friends, with my kids, crack jokes with everyone I meet, WRITE STUPID LETTERS, stop worrying, stop living the American life du jour, obsessed with security in all forms. Mortgage, marriage, life insurance, health insurance, college plans, ADT, homeland security, TSA, extended warranties, safety, safety, safety!! It’s too much. I stick out my tongue to it all.
I am going to start writing nonsense letters again. I think I’ll start by inviting my bank, the holder of my mortgage, to tea, as we own this house together. I’ll write them, telling them about the roses I added this spring to our rose garden, how when I’m blue I have an odd reflex to get furniture upholstered and how the new leopard print club chair and ottoman, complete with nail heads, will be a perfect place for a round of tea with a nonsense letter writer.
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