Love Lessons From My Childhood Pen Pal

I got a letter in the mail the other day. It was a bit of an unexpected thrill, considering my mailbox is usually filled with nothing but Domino’s pizza flyers. (Which, don’t get me wrong, I still appreciate.) 


While reading it, I was reminded of a time in my life when letters weren’t quite so infrequent.

………. Cue the flashback (you knew it was coming)


The year was 1995: I was 9 years old, bookish, and heavy into Blossom Hats and The Babysitter’s Club. I was teetering on the verge of what would soon become my five-year “awkward phase”, but didn’t know it yet. Life was good.

It was also the year I made my first Pen Pal.

*Not me or my dog.
*Not me or my dog.

I acquired my Pen Pal through somewhat unusual circumstances. My father, the son of Croatian immigrants, liked to keep ties with his Eastern European heritage. This manifested itself mostly in three ways: cooking obscene amounts of cabbage, hoarding things, and subscribing to a Croatian newsletter called  Zajedničar. 

Zajedničar, as I recall it, was a bizarre publication filled with ads for life insurance, way too many consonants, and people in weird costumes playing Tamburitzas.


 I never paid much attention to it until one day, my dad showed me an ad offering a PenPal service connecting Croatian children across North America.  

Now this was something I could get down with. The opportunity to correspond with a real live girl in another country? Sign me up!

I immediately submitted my information to the magazine, and a few weeks later, received my first letter.  It was from a girl named Jessica in Erie, Pennsylvania. She was 10 years old, and loved Barbies, gymnastics and stickers- in that order.  She even sent me her school photo, in which she was wearing one of those Western bolo shirts that were popular at the time.

This was the best I could do on Google images. In reality, she looked nothing like this.
This was the best I could do on Google images. She actually looked nothing like this.

Her long, sandy blond hair was tied into a side braid with a fluffy white scrunchie on the end, and she accessorized with dangly troll earrings, gummy bracelets and a toothpaste-commercial smile.


To me, she was impossibly cool.

I immediately began crafting my response. Besides just telling her my entire life story, I also spent hours researching her hobbies and interests in order to prove what a thoughtful and conscientious Pen Pal I could be. I even had my dad pull out the atlas to show me where Erie was on the map. 


I was certain she would be impressed by such informational gems as:

Did you know your town is named after a lake??!”; and 

I heard toothpaste is great for removing sticker residue!” 

We corresponded for the next few months, sending letters as well as other totems of our respective 90’s childhoods: stickers, colorful erasers, POGS, temporary tattoos.We never spoke a single word about Croatia, but that was OK. 

Eventually, things kind of fizzled out. Ok, I’m lying. Jessica just straight-up stopped writing to me. I don’t really know what happened. I mean, maybe I was a little overzealous in my pursuits- spending hours drafting elaborate letters, consulting atlases and whatnot. And maybe I should’ve seen this one coming when my 10-page anthologies met with only a few measly paragraphs in response. “Maybe she’s busy practicing her tumbling,” my mother would say. But deep down, I knew the score. 

While being blown-off so coldly hurt at the time, in a way I’m thankful, because it probably prevented me from becoming a full-on stage 5 clinger in future romantic relationships.  


Now I’m just incredibly closed-off and distant. I think it’s working out pretty well for me.


So thank you, Jessica, for teaching me that there is such a thing as coming on way too strong. I  hope you finally found that Sailor Moon sticker sheet you were looking for, and that somewhere, out there, you and your side braid are tumbling off into the sunset.

Question of the Day: Did You Have A Pen Pal Growing Up?


21 thoughts on “Love Lessons From My Childhood Pen Pal

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  1. Since you asked, yes! I did! We signed up for ours at school, and I ended up with some chick from Sri Lanka. She sent me some weird barrettes and I totally Jessica’d her ass.


      1. You should’ve seen these barrettes. I can’t be pen pals with someone with a poor taste level. It was preventing me from a possible future friendship with Tim Gunn of Project Runway.


  2. I did! And it was utterly thrilling whilst it lasted.

    It was done through the school, and my entire class had a penpal for kids in another school. We all met up one summer at a local park/woods. It was awesome, and I remember being glad that I had shorts on under my jeans as it was a blisteringly hot day.

    I remember putting loads of effort into it, including a sheet of instructions on how to make a cup out of a piece of paper. I included a completed cup, along with a six-month old newspaper about the football team I supported.

    He sent me nothing – NOTHING – of value in return. I hated him after that.


  3. I don’t recall ever having a childhood pen pal, but as an adult, I’ve made many friends in the local Croatian community. They’re mostly crotchety old timers, but they love to drink beer and smoke pigs and lamb and stuff, so they’re alright with me!


  4. I looooved having pen pals when I was a kid. I had several from a couple of different sources. Jessica should feel awesome that she got to read your brilliance before blogs existed, Breezy! 🙂


  5. I never had a pen pal that I had never met? I used to write letters back and forth with one of my friends from school after she moved away, but that was about it. Oddly, I was never much for writing letters. I wrote letters back and forth to my cousin while I was away at summer camp just for fun, because by that point letters were novelty 🙂 But it is fun finding a letter in your mailbox for sure.


  6. Omg, I was a very spoilt child and actually had two pen pals growing up! One was from Tacoma in Washington, and the other was from Hungary. To be honest, I didn’t even know that was a real place. I don’t remember how mine fizzled out, but coming from a small-ish country like New Zealand, I thought it was really great having that International contact. They should totally bring that back.


  7. Ahh pen pals and stickers and 90’s oh my! I think in elementary school they forced us to have pen pals from other schools and I probably wrote the dumbest things. I shudder to think.
    Letters are awesome though. Such a lost art. They have a way of making people feel special. Not that facebook notifications don’t make me feel special, but you know what I mean 😉


  8. Ohhh pen pals. Yes, I had one for a while, my Dad traveled to Germany often for work so he linked me up with his coworkers daughter. We wrote maybe three letters each and then it went no where. Now, I feel like my blogger friends are pen pals with whom I drop occasional comments.


  9. I had a penpal from conneticut, Lisa Story. We met on a trip to Bermuda. We had a great correspondence until one day she wrote about her wonderful weekend with…..ready for this…..Kevin Bacon. Please keep in mind that Footloose came out just months before this, he was the heartthrob of many a teen. She said they were horseback riding on her uncle’s farm in rural Conn. I called “bullshit” on her in my next letter, of course not actually using that term. She never wrote back and a little while later, I was reading one of those teen mags and read about Kevin Bacon riding horses on a farm in Conn. Whoopsie!


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