“Honey, are you okay in here? I brought you some tea.” Garret nudged open the door to his mother-in-law’s study.
Cathy was sitting in the comfortable chair with a piece of paper in her hand. She had tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Cath, what is it?” Garret strode across the room to crouch down next to her.
“I didn’t – is that tea? Thank you, that’s just what I need.” Cathy sat up, carefully folded the paper she was holding into an envelope, and reached for the mug.
“What’s wrong? You’ve been in here for hours.”
“Have I? I’m fine, Garret, I just found something amazing.” Cathy sipped at the tea while looking around the room. “I didn’t get very far, did I?"
“No one thought you’d get through all of your mom’s papers in a morning, but it does seem like you got sidetracked by something. What did you find?”
“Did you ever hear my mother mention a woman named Jan? Jan Smith?”
Garret sat cross-legged on the floor. “No I don’t think so. Why?”
“My Mom and Jan wrote to each other. For years. This whole box is their letters, and I think there might be more somewhere. Look, here’s the first one Mom received.” Cathy pulled out an envelope from the far side of the box.
Garret took the fragile envelope and noted the postmark said 1957. He pulled out the letter and read the careful grade school penmanship:
I think we should be full time pen pals. I have a cat named Patches and a brother named Ronald (he’s older) and I can’t sew yet though
PS. Please write back at least once even if you don’t want to be my pen pal, thanks.
“How did they find each other?”
“I don’t know. But Mom obviously wanted to be her pen pal, this whole box is letters from Beverly that she saved. I was going to read just a few and then work on the papers in the file cabinet, but…” Cathy smiled ruefully and sipped her tea.
“But you got sucked in and kept reading?” Garret asked. Cathy nodded.
“Are any of your mom’s letters in here?”
“Not that I found, it’s only the letters from Jan. But they really did talk about their lives, so in Jan’s answers I know what was happening with Mom. When you came in I was reading the letter that must have been a response to my being born. Jan hadn’t been pregnant yet and thought a baby sounded okay but that giving birth was awful. Mom was apparently detailed in her description.”
“That sounds like your mom. What did she always say?”
“Life is messy. Living is getting dirty.” Cathy started crying again, but was smiling too. “Reading these letters is like meeting my mom all over again, and Jan too.” Cathy’s breath hitched. “I wonder if Jan knows that Mom - passed?”
“Passed? Your mom would chew you out for that.”
“I know. 'Dead is dead' she'd say. But it’s easier for me and she’s not here to chew.” Cathy stuck her tongue out at her husband. “I don’t know if they ever did anything but write letters, and Jan has moved several times.”
“Why don’t we get out of this room for a bit, take a walk to the park maybe? When we get back I’ll look through the box to find the most recent letters and we’ll figure out how to contact Jan.”
“Okay. Thank you.” Cathy stood up and offered a hand to her husband. He got up too and hugged her close.
Cathy’s phone was ringing, and she was trying to remember where she had left it. She picked up the phone from the hallway table and answered.
“Um, hello. Are you Cathy Harker?”
“I am, who is this?”
“My name is Sophie Wilson. You sent a letter to my mom, Jan Smith?”
“The pen pal! I would love to talk to your mom, does she live with you?”
“No, she – she passed away a few weeks ago.”
“Oh no.” Cathy slid down the wall and sat in the hallway. “I’m so sorry. Losing your mom is – well it’s horrible isn’t it?”
“It’s certainly not my favorite thing. We – my husband and I - only got up here to close her house two days ago. She kept saying she was going to move back here any day, but she couldn’t be that far from a hospital anymore.”
Cathy could hear Sophie starting to cry on the other end of the line. “I don’t know what to say. But I also know that well-meaning silence makes me want to scream. So – I could recite poetry?”
Sophie laughed. “No thank you, and thank you. It’s odd to talk to someone who so thoroughly understands how this feels.”
“Yes. Especially because I feel like I already know you, a little. My husband, Garret sorted all of the letters, Jan’s letters, by date. I’ve been reading a few every day; our moms are in their mid-40s, and frustrated at us.”
“Heh. I wasn’t so fond of Mom either, for a while. Adam, my husband, went through the recent mail this morning, and brought me your letter. I was so glad to have it because-” Sophie took a deep breath “we found a box full of Beverly’s letters yesterday.”
Cathy froze. This was like having a little bit more of her mom back, maybe.
“Now you’re quiet, is it my turn for a poetry recital?” Sophie teased.
“No. I just – I was so hoping that I’d find Jan and be able to talk to her about Mom. But what I was really hoping, selfishly, is that she’d saved the letters too.”
“I know. We read through several of the letters from Beverly last night, and she is sweet and funny and blunt and I could feel Mom, my Mom in her letters.”
“Exactly. I’m kind of glad it worked out like this, I think reading my mom’s words might be too much right now, but feeling her reflected through Jan, your mom…”
“Yes. I haven’t read as many of Beverly’s letters, but yes.”
This time both women paused. Trying to fill the gap Cathy resorted to small talk.
“So you’re in Alaska too, Sophie?”
“We live in Anchorage, that’s why Mom was living with us for the last few months. And you live in Illinois?"
“Yeah, Galesburg, it’s a college town. Mom stayed just outside Chicago her whole life.” Cathy chuckled. “I have to ask you something but I’m not even sure what. Please keep the letters my mom wrote, and someday I might want to see them but not now…”
“I get it. Knowing they’re out there, it helps. And reading Beverly’s letters helps me too. Maybe someday we can meet and trade boxes, each get to read our own mom’s words. But not for a while, maybe not for a long while.”
“That’s exactly it. Thank you.” Cathy smiled to herself.
“Well, our mothers were linked together by stamps and paper. It makes some sense that we feel it too, even if they didn’t tell us. I have an odd question. When did Beverly die; you didn’t say in your letter.”
“June 22, why?”
Sophie let out a huff of air, and Cathy could hear the tears and the smile in her voice. “I thought that might be it. My mom, Jan, died the same day.”
Cathy felt her own tears start. “So, maybe they did get to meet.”
“Maybe so. Is it your return address on the letter? Do you mind if I write to you? I have your email and your phone number, obviously, but…I think I should write you at least one actual postman comes to your door letter.”
“I would like that. And I’ll write back, and talk about my life and ask you a question.”
***LJIdol continues. I was inspired by this piece in the paper, though I don't know what Jan and Beverly would think of my fiction. More current events entries can be found at this link.***