When I was 12 years old, I used to read Tiger Beat Magazine. I loved the articles on all the cutest boy idols, but I also enjoyed other features. In one issue, they advertised a pen pal exchange. All you had to do was send in your name and address and they would hook you up with a pen pal! Seemed like a great idea and as it turns out, it really was. A couple of weeks later I received a note in the mail with a name and address on it...my new pen pal was Jill Drew of Allegany, New York. My memories tend towards fuzziness at the best of times and I really can't remember who wrote to who first. All I know is that once we began writing, we were the most devoted of pen pals. I loved hearing about her life all the way across the country. This was, duh, pre-computer age and it was even kind of a bigger, more expensive deal to make long distance phone calls, so it was all about the snail mail for us. It was so exciting to get her letters and to be able to send my thoughts back to her. Like the online friendships of today, perhaps our friendship was both more and less honest than real life, day-to-day relationships. We had no reason not to be very open and honest, but it is sometimes appealing to paint a slightly prettier picture of your life when there isn't going to be any onsite verification :-)
Anyway, we wrote for several years. Through Jr. High and High School. We sent pictures and exchanged our hopes and fears and ideas. By the time we were 18, we began to grow apart a bit. At that time, you could drink at 18 in New York and it seemed to me (judgemental little brat) that Jill was making some poor choices, or maybe simply being an awful show-off. We began writing less often as we moved toward adulthood, but did manage to stay in touch with holiday greetings.
One Christmas I sent out my cards, including one to Jill. At the time I was living in an apartment with my husband and two toddler sons. Jill was still living at her parents home, where I continued to send her these occasional greetings. On this particular Christmas I was surprised when my card elicited a letter sent to me by Jill's mother. In it, she told me that only a couple of months earlier Jill had been killed under very unclear circumstances. Apparently she was drinking with some friends at their apartment, someone brought out a gun, and the story was that Jill had taken it and shot herself. I believe she died almost immediately. Jill's mom felt that Jill wouldn't shot herself and that there was something being hidden, but indicated that the police were treating it as a suicide. It was one of the most horrible things I've ever heard...to think of this happening, under any circumstances, to this girl whom I had shared so much with.
I so appreciated that Jill's mom took the time to write back to me when my card came to their house. Of course, she knew how long we had been pen pals. She was sweet in the letter, telling me she was so glad to know that I had a family around me. I wrote back with sincere condolences. And that was the end of my pen pal days.
Whenever I think of the "lost art" of letter writing, I think of Jill Drew...and in my heart she lives on as a sort of alternate part of me living her parallel life on the other side of the country forever.