A Pen Pal Romance

My, my, but I did get pretty close to the borderline of the not too long part of my newsletter title last week, didn’t I? I was starting to feel guilty about lying, but I just did an internet search and discovered that my longer posts were in the “ideal” range for 2020. It’s amazing how easily you can find something to support your point of view these days. Just like that, I went from feeling like a lying failure to a writing success. An “expert” at blog posts.

Still, no matter what the experts say, I felt my newsletters might be getting a little out of control, so I checked the word count in each of the first four and discovered that yes, I have been getting consistently more and more long-winded. Here is how they ranked:

That last one got very close to doubling the first one. Yikes.

That reminds me of another story of expanding word counts. Actually, it was page counts since the writings in this fairy tale were all by hand, and no one really thought of counting words. Pages, however, we did count.

It all started in January of 1986 when a handwritten letter on a piece of 5 x 8 unlined work stationery miraculously appeared at APDO 293-C in Guatemala City, the city that had been my home for about a year and a half. It had arrived from Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC, its words spelled out in cursive, covering the front side and one half of the back. It was brief, to the point, and didn’t say much more than, “I enjoyed meeting you at the conference a few weeks ago.” I found out later that it was carefully crafted to say just what it did.

It didn’t matter to me that it didn’t say more. My heart raced as I read it. And put it aside. And re-read it. And buried it in my box of letters I had received over the years. And pulled it back out. And re-read it once more as I thought about whether or not I was going to write back. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write back; it’s just that I wasn’t sure if I should write back.

At the time I received that little piece of paper, I was a single-minded single missionary and determined to stay that way until God showed me the man I was to marry. I had had a life-changing encounter with Jesus my freshman year of college – the kind you hear people talking about and sometimes wonder if they are making things up. I can only say to you that 41 years later, almost to the day I sit writing this, I have no doubt as to the reality of my experience. I was sincere when I knelt on my chilly dorm room floor at Mississippi State University that Friday morning, thanked God for sending his Son to die for my sins, and surrendered my life whole-heartedly to his love and service. And he has been faithful to guide and keep me ever since.

From the moment I committed my life to serving God, I had a desire to go to the mission field – not just any mission field, but to a place where Spanish was spoken. In fact, even before that, whenever I would see something on TV about going to serve communities in Latin American countries, I would feel stirred. For some unknown reason, I had wanted to learn Spanish ever since I was a child and would occasionally pick up one of Mom’s old textbooks and try to learn it on my own since we weren’t able to take a foreign language until 9th grade. Why I wanted to learn it so badly is a mystery to me since the only experience I had really had with Latin American culture was to be born very close to the Mexican border in a small town called Mission, Texas. But unless one-month-olds absorb far more than child development experts have discovered, I doubt that was the reason. We were off to Oklahoma when I was still spending more time sleeping and eating than being aware of anything.

And there I go again, being long-winded. Back to the handwritten letter.

I forgot to add that the envelope also contained a full-color business card with the picture of a really cute guy on it. Or that may have been in the next letter. No matter what letter it was in, I have to confess that I looked at that little card far longer and more often than I have ever studied any work of art. The cute guy was someone I had met at a conference in Fort Worth, Texas, a few weeks earlier. We had had a total of two brief conversations, both seemingly chance encounters, but then again, I don’t really believe in chance.

The first took place after I wandered out of the final late-night conference session. It was a horrible session, the time around midnight, and those conferences required the endurance of an Olympic runner. I had had enough. I wandered around the convention center, eventually making my way to the booth my letter writer was manning and asked if it was possible to get the back-issues of the magazine he was representing. We talked for about ten minutes before I had to walk back to my own booth to start packing up.

The second was when we ran into each other at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport the next morning. He was flying home to Washington, DC, and I to Kansas City to visit my family before returning to Guatemala City. Our flights were leaving around the same time, and our gates just happened to be right next to each other. We spotted each other at the top of the escalator, and … actually, that’s not 100% true. I had seen him getting out of a taxi from the window of my hotel shuttle and thought, “It’s that guy!” and he had already spotted me and made a remark to a friend about me being his “density” (referencing a line in Back to the Future, not because he thought I was dense).

It is true, though, that we actually met each other for the second time while standing between our gates near the top of the escalator. I inquired about those back-issues once more, he saying he thought he could oblige, and I asking if he needed my address, to which he replied, “I already have your address.” That statement briefly puzzled me since I knew I had not given it to him, but I quickly resolved the mystery by assuming he must have some kind of ministry mailing list. I later learned that there was more to the story of the address.

After another ten minutes or so of conversation, I boarded my flight and tried not to think about that cute guy. I wasn’t all that successful. I kept getting the sense that he was the one. The idea was ludicrous. We lived in separate countries, were working for different ministries, and the chances of us ever meeting up again were almost impossible. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t know him at all. I chalked it up to being a romantic, visited with my family for a few days, and then hopped a flight back to Guatemala City to resume my single-minded work.

It was just a few days later that that little handwritten letter found its way to me. I don’t know how many days I went back and forth pulling that letter out, reading it, and putting it away again, before I finally decided, “I am sure God has no problem with me writing a simple letter.” So, I sat down and wrote three full-sized pages and sent them on their way. For me, that was a very short letter and an admirable exercise in self-control.

For both of us, it was the beginning of a romantic pen pal adventure, romantic without forcing romance, romantic because it was just right.

It is amazing how well you can get to know someone through old-fashioned letter writing. No internet, no phone calls, just handwritten letters that traveled ten days to reach their destination. Letters with photographs added. Photographs from film that had to be dropped off for processing and picked up a week later. Letters that went back and forth for a period of nine months, each one longer than the one before. That first little letter with its it was nice meeting you at the conference led to 26 full-sized pages and a looking forward to meeting you again soon at the conference.

That next conference was in New Orleans, and the meeting was not at all by chance. After the conference, there was a flight to Kansas City – together. And after the flight to Kansas City, there was a flight to Washington DC – together. And after a return flight to Guatemala City – alone but engaged to be married – I returned to Washington DC and married that cute guy. What started with a whirlwind romance has continued for almost 34 years (so far) of ‘til death do us part romantic and real-life adventures. And while everyone knows that faithful real-life living is the foundation of all true romance, it’s fun to recall how it all started. All I know is that I never could have picked such a perfect companion on my own. Perfect for me, that is, and still the cutest guy I know.

Once we met for the third time, it was fun to hear the other’s side of the pen pal story. Kenneth was and is convinced that I was trying to one-up him on page counts, to which I always reply, not true. Doesn’t he know by now that I love to write and can be long-winded? I just thought that if he was going to write 25 pages, that gave me permission to write 26 without feeling like I was going overboard. Just because I am the one who wrote the longest letter doesn’t mean I was trying to write the longest letter. And besides, he is the competitive one. Even though I won.

And on that little story about how he got my address, it’s quite simple. He had seen me long before our first encounter and had sent someone over to the booth where I was working just caddy-corner to his to ask for it. Come to find out, the whole time we were discussing back-issues, he was already contemplating the idea of writing me a little handwritten note. I don’t know what he would have said, but I bet we would have still ended up being pen pals. Some things are just meant to be.

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