In 1964, the year I became a teenager, The Beatles appeared. They were magical. I had always been impressed by castles and royalty, and now, to enchant me even more, England had produced The Beatles.
I first saw their photos when they appeared on the pages of Life Magazine alongside the Queen of England. Instantly I fell in teenage love and stared for hours in adoring fascination at John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
England beckoned to me. I longed to reach across the Atlantic and pull myself onto England’s shores just to be in the vicinity of the Beatles and to see the place that some of my ancestors had called home. At the very least, I wanted to one day visit Great Britain.
So when I discovered that the girl next door had been writing to a young girl in England, I asked her if her pen pal had a friend. Turns out her pen pal had a sister. I was ecstatic. Soon I was spending my babysitting money on postage stamps and honing my writing skills by sending mini-books to my new pen pal.
Chris, who was two years younger than I was, exchanged long letters with me, too, and from the beginning we talked about meeting each other. Though I knew Chris didn’t get my letters immediately, the day after I mailed one to her, I ran to the mailbox anyway in search of that nearly transparent blue envelope that connected me with another part of the world and to her.
Years worth of letters made their way to a large black trunk that sat in my parents’ basement in a far south suburb of Chicago where the Little Calumet River ran down the end of our street. We used fountain pens in those days, and if you’ve ever used one, you know that one drop of water is powerful enough to spread ink into an amorphous blob. So when the Little Calumet backed up into our basement, the flood destroyed my trunk and all of its contents, including all of my letters from Chris.
It would be the first time I’d lost her letters. The second time I lost them was due to mean-spirited landlords who threw out my belongings because the roommate with whom I’d shared an apartment lied about our “arrangement” and told them we were going to be married. We were merely friends (not anymore), and I lost most of my clothes, my furniture, my treasures, and – temporarily – my sanity (but that’s another article for another time).
Time passed. Teenagers grew into adults. Our letters, which originally included details about everything from our schools and our parents to our environments and our vocabulary, now contained information about our ambitions, our dreams, our children, and our futures.
Throughout all of those letters, always we hoped to one day meet either there in England or here in the States.
We lost touch a couple of times but always managed to find each other again. I even tried calling her a couple of times and actually spoke with her in December of 1980 when John Lennon died. Though our letters were often several pages long, we found ourselves speechless when it came to actually talking to each other.
Our entire conversation consisted only of, “I can’t believe I’m finally talking to you,” and variations of the same wording. I don’t remember if we said anything else beyond acknowledging the sadness of losing John Lennon (to read about The Day John Lennon Waved At Me, click the link).
We lost touch again in the 1990s, but every time we connected we always talked about one day meeting each other. In all those years, though, we never found the opportunity to do so.
And then Facebook arrived – through her son, Brian, I had found her again – my pen pal, Chris. And this time everything worked in our favor.
In celebration of my last chemo treatment, I planned to accompany my sister, Kathy, on a road trip to Florida. She had recently purchased a condo in Clearwater, and she wanted to shop for furniture.
Chris, along with her husband, Jim, her son, and her son’s family, were going to be in Orlando around the same time as Kathy and I would be in Clearwater. Clearwater and Orlando are within two hours of each other. Two days of our vacations overlapped, so we planned a dinner together on one of those days.
I was already so excited about the prospect of actually getting together with Chris, I would have met her anywhere. But I wanted to leave the suggestion on where to meet up to Chris.
Chris loved the American steak house experience. So after checking the prices of some steak houses in Orlando and realizing that she could get the same “American Experience” at $20 a steak as she could get at $60 a steak, I decided she couldn’t get more American than Lone Star. We met at a Lone Star steakhouse in Orlando, Florida.
I felt as if I was a teenager again. The excitement was palpable. The meeting was also very emotional, very comfortable, and very memorable. I stood in the doorway of the restaurant waiting for Chris to arrive, and when I saw her and her husband walk toward the restaurant, I felt myself (at least on the inside – I hope I wasn’t actually doing this) jumping up and down in anticipation. We had become friends first on paper, then on the Internet, and now Chris and I were friends in person.
Before we even looked at our menus, Chris presented me with a letter I’d written to her in 1992. I started to read it and then realized that if I actually took time to read it, I’d have less time to spend with Chris and her family, so I returned it to her.
The waitress appeared at our table and began with a list of suggestions for food and drink. As she went around the table, one person at a time, she went through her list of salad dressings, drinks, sides, and detailed accounts of every possible way to order a steak. Every time she moved from one person to the next, she repeated our choices, and it began to appear as if she had enlisted all of us in her own unique comedy routine. We – all of us – including our waitress, were laughing so hard, our adrenaline soared even higher.
Ryan, Chris’s nine-year old grandson, sat across from me, and I commented on his long, thick, perfectly formed eyelashes. You can’t find them at a cosmetics counter looking as beautiful as his were. His face blushed and I thought I had embarrassed him. I also thought he was bored, until I noticed one subject bring smiles to his face.
Ryan became especially excited when our talk turned to roller coasters. I love them. Chris hates them. He loves them too. He was such a joy to be around, that when he invited me to go miniature or pee-wee golfing (which he called something else, but I can’t remember what it was) with him, he endeared me to him all the more. I felt I was with family.
We laughed so much during our 3-hour meal, I’m surprised I was able to eat anything at all. Prior to our get-together, Chris had promised in a Facebook entry, to divulge a secret to me about the “key chain story” at the restaurant in Orlando.
The background is that Chris had once sent me a key chain from the Savoy Hotel in London – which I treasured. On the way to our allergist in the early 1990s, which was an hour and a half from my home at the time, my kids and I stopped at a McDonald’s Restaurant for dinner.
As I usually did, I placed my keys on the counter when I paid for the meal. Unbeknownst to me, somebody had reached up to grab them, and it wasn’t until I was ready to leave the restaurant that I noticed my Savoy Hotel key chain, along with all of my keys, missing. Having not paid attention to the guy standing behind me, I couldn’t identify him. Fortunately I had another set of keys in my purse, but I had lost an item that meant a lot to me, and years after the incident, I related to Chris what happened with the Savoy Hotel key chain.
So there we were, at our dinner together in Orlando, when Chris admitted that she had gotten the key chain for me without actually having stayed at the Savoy Hotel. She had purchased it in a novelty shop. While we were laughing, Chris handed me a package that held eleven more key chains from Great Britain.
I didn’t want the dinner to end. I could have stayed in that restaurant with Chris and her family for hours, but Kathy and I had to head back to Clearwater, because neither of us could drive in the dark. My head was already spinning with plans for our next get-together.
Whether we meet in Florida again, or in England, or even in Ireland (which we discussed), wherever we meet won’t matter. What matters is THAT we meet again. I’m saving my pennies now. All donations for the “Send Theresa to England Fund” can be sent to (just kidding).
Thank you, Kathy (my sister), for accompanying me to this dinner. And thank you, Jim, Brian, Andrea, Ryan, and especially Chris for a memory I will cherish forever.