Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bending Reality: When Pen Pals, Fictional Characters, Virtual Friends and Real Life Collide

Hard to believe, but I used to write letters almost every single day. Longhand. *shudders* Well, sometimes longhand. When I could get my hands on my dad's old Royal typewriter, I preferred to use that, but mostly I just wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

Even though I now avoid longhand whenever possible (you would shudder, too, if you saw my penmanship), I still have a callous from all those years of letter writing.

When I lived in England years ago, instead of keeping a journal, I wrote letters every day - to my parents, to my brothers and sisters, to my friends and all my other relatives. And when I moved back to the U.S. I wrote to all the friends and family I'd left behind in England.

I still write to some of my elderly relatives who don't have computers, but not nearly as often as I communicate with those who have Facebook and email accounts. I heart my computer - I don't deny it.

I LOVE that I've reconnected with my old friend Ian on Facebook - he lives in Scotland, but we worked together in London some thirty years ago. We've sent Christmas cards to each other for years, but now it's like he's in the next room.

It's the same with my friend Linda. We've been friends since we discovered our mutual love of the Beatles in sixth grade and we've stayed in touch all these years. But we never really felt connected until Facebook brought us together again.

Jim, Pat, Felicia, Bonnie, Bunny - friends from middle school and high school who had seemed so far away are there whenever I click the page, even though Bonnie is in Rio or other exotic places.

Facebook is fun, but I do have some fond memories of writing to pen pals and watching every day to see if the mailman would bring me a letter. My first real pen pal, Lilann, was slightly older than I was; her mother was a good friend of my aunt's, and she lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I'd met her when I was 15 and we corresponded for years after that. I remember when she wrote about her father's death at an early age, and when she decided to go to nursing school. We lost touch for years, and then met again about ten years ago. When her mom died this year, it was like losing a piece of my youth.

My most memorable pen pal lived right down the street. Her name was Kerry, and we met in fifth grade. We were dorks, by any standard. The day she was introduced as the new kid in class, I saw a very short girl with straight brownish-blonde hair and heavy bangs, cat-eye glasses and, as I recall, a leopard print dress. (I had one like that later, so I'm not sure I trust my memory of that.)

I was quite tall and very skinny, with masses of freckles and long red hair that I wore in two braids. I HATED that I'd been named after Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm; I fit her description a little too well. I would have preferred Loretta Young as a namesake, with her looks to match. Instead, the boys called me "Mr. Green Jeans" because, well, I actually had a pair of green jeans. See what I mean? Total dork. (That's a picture of Mr. Green Jeans with his friend, Captain Kangaroo, below.)

We both were obsessive readers, although our taste differed - Kerry adored Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House series, while I was into Alfred Hitchcock short stories and anything with a mystery. We made up stories about the Russian spies across the street (they had a ham radio and foreign names, and my parents think they might really have been spies - it was the Cold War era, after all), and when another neighbor dug a trench for some plants, we convinced ourselves he was hiding bodies under them.

Those were wonderful times. We hid in the furnace closet when her three older brothers had wild parties that inevitably ended with the police showing up, and we willingly ran errands for her brothers, for a small fee. My house was overrun with younger siblings; to me, her house was the most fascinating place on earth. We were young voyeurs, always spying on the teenagers and, as I recall, sometimes taking notes.

Kerry and I clung to each other when we saw a double feature of Two on a Guillotine and Psycho (and it was the former that terrified us . . . the slowly turning doorknob . . . eek!), and when my brother and his friend Alan put some of my Beatle cards in a mousetrap, we retaliated by making Poison for Boys out of everything in her parents' medicine cabinets. (We poured it all into baggies and lobbed them at the boys from our bikes; last time I went by our old house there was still no grass growing where the PFB had landed.)

So, if Kerry lived right down the street, how did we become pen pals? Well, it wasn't exactly us. We made up an imaginary friend named Lillian P. Potter. She had a brother named Georgie, and she lived in Moonstone Manor in Scotland.

Whenever we felt the urge, we'd write a page or two in Lillian's POV (although we had no clue what point-of-view meant in those days) and mail it to the other with the Moonstone Manor return address. This went on for years. I would LOVE to find those letters, but unless Kerry has some, I think they've all gone the way of other childhood ephemera.

Kerry and I were inseparable all through middle school, but by the time we reached high school we'd begun to grow apart. It wasn't until we were out of school and I was married that we reconnected again, and then, every so often, Lillian would resurface to send a birthday or Christmas card.

By the time we became mothers (Kerry's a teacher now, with two grown sons and a couple of grandchildren), Lillian had grown up, too. I'm sure she's frolicking in the Highlands with some brawny, shirtless Scot in a kilt and having mysterious adventures every day. (Hey, it's my story, despite the fact that Ian will go into hysterics when he reads the bit about the brawny shirtless Scot.)

Lillian is not forgotten, though, and when the Harry Potter books came out, I liked to imagine he was a descendant of Lillian's.

I could hardly believe it when it was revealed that Harry's mother was named Lillian. Could it be??? Perhaps one of our letters went astray and was returned to Scotland, where it was found by an aspiring author with a vision of a bespectacled boy floating in her head. Stranger things have happened . . .

So, back to pen pals vs. Facebook, reality vs. virtuality. (If there is such a word.)

I think it's all the same, really - pen pals, virtual friends and friends we see in "real life." Characters in books are just another form of virtual - and only somewhat imaginary - friends. To those of us who live between the pages of books, reality is a little bit virtual, too.

At least, that's what I like to imagine.


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