Pen Pals

By Leon Alligood


Lebanon, Tennessee

Her final letter came the same way her first did: by mailman. In an age of instant communication littered with emojis and splashing graphics, the letters from Mrs. Barbara James of 104 18th Place, Opelika, Alabama, startled me every time I opened my mailbox in Tennessee. Accustomed to sorting the mail into three piles — magazines, bills, and people selling something (trashed) — it was always refreshing to find a new letter from Barbara in the mix. Her envelopes were always thick with several handwritten pages. The pages and the envelopes usually featured stickers: a smiling bunny holding a carrot in springtime, a snow-covered village in winter, a picture of a blooming hydrangea in summer.

The stickers always made me smile because they reminded me of another woman’s letters. This woman also put stickers on her mail. At her home she had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stickers. I know because I inherited them. She was my mother, Elizabeth Ann Hiers Alligood.

And with her introduction, let me cinch the narrative arc of this story tight against my heart and tell it as best I can.

My mother died in May 2016. She suffered a stroke at her rural home near Meigs, Georgia, in April of that year. While recuperating in the hospital, a stronger stroke took what the first stroke didn’t. My siblings and I brought her home to die.

As executor of my mother’s estate, it fell to me to sort out her life’s belongings. My mother’s dementia had worsened in her final years, particularly since the summer of 2014 when my father, Jesse, passed away. Consequently, the desk where, for decades, she played solitaire on her computer and where she paid the bills, became cluttered. I put off going through the mound of papers for several months, unwilling to bear witness to the accumulation of junk mail, random newspaper clippings, catalogs, unopened bills, and cryptic notes written to herself. Prior to dementia, my mother was a woman of efficiency and organization, reconciling bank accounts each month to the penny. She was secretary of her college’s alumni association. The desk in disarray made me miss her more.

Several months after she died, I found an address book in a drawer. Among the many entries was one for Barbara James. At the sight of her name, a story rushed back to me.

Barbara and my mother were 9 and 8, respectively, in 1939. Both were Girl Scouts, Barbara in Alabama and my mother in West Palm Beach, Florida. With help from “Polly Pigtales,” a popular magazine for girls of that era, the Alabama girl received names and addresses of potential writing friends, so she could earn the Pen Pal badge. As she related in one of her letters, the badge required writing five girls and receiving letters from at least three.

“I got four,” she wrote me, her penmanship a testimony to her mastery of cursive writing.

My mother was one of the four. I don’t know whether the other three girls continued to correspond with Barbara, but the connection made between young Alabama and Florida girls persevered. Through World War II, high school, marriage, births of children (five for my mother and four for Barbara), and deaths of spouses, the pen pals continued their friendship via the United States Postal Service. Sometimes, the correspondence was Christmas cards with lengthy updates enclosed, but at other times, according to my mother, they exchanged letters more frequently. I’m sure somewhere in the dozens of plastic tubs containing my mother’s mementos of her well-lived life there are letters from a young Barbara Hand (her maiden name), but I’ve yet to find the time to begin a search. I can only imagine what they wrote in those first letters, as war loomed, as my mother feared for her older brother, Sonny, who served in the Pacific.

Surprisingly, the two women never met until the 1960s, almost three decades after their pen-pal relationship began, although there had been a close encounter when both were teenagers. Barbara’s family was headed to Key West, and she asked her dad to detour to West Palm Beach. Unfortunately, my mother was at the library when they arrived.

“But I met her twin brother,” Barbara wrote me. She was referring to my Uncle Vail, who likely enjoyed meeting a young woman from out of town without his pesky sister around.

Their paths finally converged when my mother attended a conference at Callaway Gardens and Barbara drove over from Opelika. A photograph was snapped and a short article written in the Opelika newspaper. What strikes me are their wide smiles as they posed for the camera.

After finding her address, I wrote to Barbara in late 2016 to let her know my mother and father had died. I did not expect a reply, but she was gracious enough to respond.

From Feb. 9, 2017: “I do appreciate you taking time to let me know about your parents’ deaths. I cried when I read your letter. They were both so nice, and they meant a lot to me.”

The letter continued for five pages. I soaked up her memories of my family, how she remembered my parent’s determined care for my younger sister, Julia Ann, who was born with severe mental challenges. She told me about her children, her late husband, Frank, who died the previous Christmas Eve, and his hobby of building toy trucks.

“Your mom bought one. Remember that? I think it was for a grandchild,” she wrote. She also told me of her current battle with cancer and arthritis and shingles. She lamented being bound to a wheelchair. But she came around to the silver lining, as she always did, expressing thanks for her family’s care, her church’s concern.

On Page 5, she ended with an invitation.

“There’s lots more I could write but I’ll let this be it. If you would like to pen pal with me, I would love it,” she wrote.

And that’s how I became the second generation of my family to become pen pals with Barbara of Opelika. I took up her offer not because I felt sorry for an octogenarian in a wheelchair, but because I was a man missing his mama. When I wrote my first letter to Barbara, I was writing from a need deep in the quick of my soul. My mother had lived to an age when most of her friends were dead. Yet, here was Barbara, who had vicariously shared the experiences of my family’s life through letters exchanged over the decades with my mother.

Now, she was willing to read my letters, so I wrote; rather, I typed, for my penmanship is raw. I told her of my work as a reporter-turned-academic, my wife’s work as an elementary school principal. I wrote about my sons, how one is a musician and teacher and how the other works at the Country Music Hall of Fame. How the oldest son, Arthur, was soon to remarry following a divorce; how the youngest son, Shep, bought his first house and was “playing the field” in the romance department. And my three granddaughters. I went on and on about them, how I wished my mother had lived to see them grow up, especially the youngest granddaughters, twins.

A letter or two in, I realized I wasn’t writing to Barbara. Instead, I was writing to my mother via her pen pal. Yet, in Barbara’s replies, I could hear my mother’s even-tempered voice of pragmatism.

“Shep probably sees what happened to Arthur and wants to be sure it doesn’t happen to him,” she wrote.

And this: “It’s a blessing the grandgirls love their new (step) mom.”

In the summer of 2017, my family traveled to Yellowstone National Park, and I wrote her an account of what we did and saw, enclosing a few photos. She, in turn, told me of her tours of the west and Alaska when she was younger.

Thus, we continued our conversation, writing every few months. My stack of received letters grew thicker. I saved them all. I am my mother’s son, after all.

My last letter to her was written in September 2018. I had meant to write many months earlier, but on vacation in July I slipped on wet grass while fly-fishing and broke my right ankle in three places, and the small bone just below my knee. First came surgery, then a period of immobility. Finally, by the end of August, I graduated to a knee scooter and then to walking in a heavy orthopedic boot.

In my September letter, I caught her up with my travails, of the big fish that got away, how I never mastered using crutches, of my joy at being able to walk without aid once again. What I did not tell her was that I had planned a trip to Opelika to see her. I wanted to tell her how grateful I was for the closure our pen-pal relationship had given me. I had come to understand that writing to her was like writing a long goodbye to my mother. Bittersweet, yes, but all the richer because I gained a friend in the process. The visit to Alabama was going to be a surprise, just as she had surprised my mother with their first face-to-face meeting all those years ago.

My pen pal Barbara never read my last letter. She died on Aug. 2, more than a month before I affixed a stamp on the envelope and turned the flag up on my mailbox. I received a letter from her youngest daughter in late October. She apologized for not replying sooner to give me the news, but I fully understood the delay. The passing of a parent leaves sons and daughters adrift, bobbing in an ocean of memories and emotions. Some tasks must await their time.

Barbara’s final letter to me had arrived in March 2018 and contained a surprise. I opened the enclosed card to find another envelope. I recognized the writing immediately. It was a letter from my mother to Barbara, but now Barbara was returning the letter to me.

The postmark on my mother’s letter was Feb. 14, 2008. I read slowly, hearing her voice as I read her words.

“Hi. Just a note to say I’m still here and doing well in spite of being older,” she began. “I can see and feel spring is right around the corner and I will be glad.”

My mind plotted the postmark date on the timeline of my mother’s dementia, and I realized she wrote this letter early in the process. In February 2008, my mother was plagued only by mild short-term memory loss, and my father had not yet received the diagnosis of incurable lung disease, which would slowly rob him of breath over the next six years. In this letter, they are forever whole and functioning and so, so alive.

For this gift from my pen pal Barbara, I am grateful.

I will use her letters one day soon to tell my granddaughters a story. It will be the story of two girls, one from Alabama and one from Florida, who became friends through words on paper and whose words outlived them, just as I hope my words to my granddaughters will outlive me.