Pen to Paper, Year to Year

Telling people that I love to write immediately implies a love of storytelling. And of course I have that love, as everyone does, but often for me, the better part of writing is the physical act. A clear surface, a good ink pen, a neat stack paper, crisp and soft at the same time; to impress upon a pristine sheet with that black pressure is instantly rewarding. It’s an ironic sort of love — I rarely do any writing that way anymore. My brain moves faster than my hand can keep up, I spew out too much nonsense before I get to the good stuff, and to take the time and ink to write it all out is more wasteful and distracting than productive.

“I love to write,” I told Bob two weeks ago, upon our first meeting, as I unpacked college boxes from my gray Civic. My parents moved into our house about three months ago — it’s the first one they’ve owned in Sarasota after exactly a decade of three different rentals. (It’s nice to be able to paint our own walls again.) Bob is my neighbor, and he lives with his wife Nancy in a pale yellow house next door. Initially questioning my English degree (“So what are you going to do with that?”), it now seemed as if he saw a distinct purpose in me when he heard that I love storytelling.

“Ahh, a writer, huh?” he mused more to himself than to me, with one of those elderly eye twinkles that you read of in children’s books about Christmas. Sure enough, ten minutes later, he comes back from his pale yellow house, gingerly holding a card in both hands.

“Me and my wife have been sending this back and forth with another couple — friends of ours — they live in Arizona.” I’m on the phone with my aunt, unsuspecting and unprepared.

“Hold on, Irene,” I mutter sideways, and press the phone to my chest. I can see writing on the front and back. It bulges from papers stuffed inside, the crease is bound together by Scotch tape; it shines in the Florida sunlight. He hands the card to me and says their anniversaries are a few weeks apart, says they’ve been sending it back and forth for twenty years, says “here, look,” points to the return addresses stickers that are on a scrap of paper, reads “Mr. and Mrs. Ernst W. Tuck,” looks up, says to me, “Ernie and Cathie Tuck.” Then Bob asks, more with genuine curiosity than challenge,

“You think you can write a story about this, then?”

I stand dumbfounded, say, “Sure.” I say, “Of course.”

On the front of the card, in friendly, hand-painted lettering, it reads “Happy Anniversary to a perfect couple!” Beneath the print are two cartoon cats, one yellow with orange stripes, and one white with gray spots, embracing. Inside, it says, “And yes, you can send this card back to us on our anniversary if you want to.” Bob and Nancy did just that — it traveled first to Ernie and Cathie in 1994. In 1995, Ernie and Cathie wrote back, “Recycled cards are great!” Over the years, it has traveled through Washington, Georgia, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, and likely a few other states they didn’t mention in their correspondences. In 2004, they nearly ran out of space on the card, and began to type and print out their messages on a folded piece of paper that has now expanded to four pieces of folded paper, that are stuffed inside the card each time it is mailed.

I flip through the pages and read about their travels, their friends, their lives. I read that Ernie had hernia surgery in 2005, and came along just fine in time for their trip to Michigan on June first, but the next year, he needed another spinal tap to check on the progress of his meningitis, and Ernie and Cathie had to cancel their trip to see Sharon’s oldest graduate from high school. He’d been accepted to Arizona University in Flagstaff, though, so they were hoping to see more of him when they return home. In May 2011, it was hard to believe Jerry’s youngest, Jackie, who was Homecoming Queen, was graduating from high school the following month, and just as recently as May of 2013, Ernie and Cathie took a cruise along the Baltic Capitals, so Ernie had been doing much better since his surgery.

In 2001, Bob taped a quarter to the inside for Ernie and Cathie to use at “the slot machine” of an unspecified location. In 2003, Bob changed his mind. “I need a new lawn mower so I took back my quarter.” It must have been replaced over the next year or two, because in 2006, Bob robbed Ernie and Cathie yet again. “I made some some bad investments so I took the last quarter.” I laugh aloud as I follow the poor quarter’s storyline. I hope Cathie and Ernie were eventually reimbursed.

When I was first getting to know the neighborhood, my mom told me about Bob and Nancy before I met them. She told me about Bob’s son, who reminds her of Jim Carrey, who comes by to help out with the house every so often, and she told me about Nancy’s Parkinson’s. Bob mentions it in 2006:

“We are doing just fine. Nancy fighting her beginning Parkinson’s and I, God bless me, am not on any medication. The lobotomy worked.” (God, Bob, you kill me.) He signs,

“Take care of each other. Love, Bob and Nancy.”

Six years later, Nancy’s Parkinson’s isn’t getting better.

“I am now her caregiver,” Bob writes. “When I married her I figured my age difference would give out first and she would be my caregiver. I am the luckiest person on earth to be able to be her caregiver. Take care of each other. Nancy says she loves you. Me too.”

On Maya Angelou’s passing, Barack Obama released a written statement that said: “Over the course of her remarkable life, Maya was many things — an author, poet, civil rights activist, playwright, actress, director, composer, singer and dancer. But above all, she was a storyteller,” he said. “And her greatest stories were true.”

It’s easy to measure the value of a life by numbers: by dollars earned, by people met, by countries traveled. We find it harder to measure a life by words, when, incidentally, words are the things we remember most, the things that bind us to who we are. I can’t imagine a time when these letters and cards won’t be valuable, when the physical act of pen to paper will become obsolete. There’s a unique kind of satisfaction that comes from the tangible. Bob and Nancy and Ernie and Cathie all know of it. They touch it and read it and impress upon it every spring, their pen an extension of their hearts.