Week before last I flew to Chicago for a few days to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday. She’s someone I’ve known for 23 years, though we don’t see each other that often. Now this particular person does happen to be one of those people that you can just pick right up with, no matter how long it’s been since you last saw them, but the internet has played a significant role in our keeping close. In fact, years ago, for reasons best left back there, we stopped speaking for a few years but became close again via email.
That was after her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she reached out. They had just moved across the country, she was in a town she didn’t know, she had a toddler, and her husband was going to die. She needed people to talk to and I reached back — because who wouldn’t under those circumstances — but also grateful that it gave me a way to make a real amends for what had broken us apart. I long ago deleted the emails we exchanged during those months. I remember feeling they really weren’t mine to keep. The particulars weren’t what remained important anyway, it was the bond.
Anyway, on this same Chicago trip, I finally got to meet the esteemed blogmistress ofthis very establishment. Over a great meal, she and Mister A and I talked about the whole online/real world collision thing briefly, but the conversation pretty quickly turned back to other stuff, movies, television, gossip, family, the kind of things friends talk about over dinner
For a bunch of reasons, I don’t really get it whenpeople question the value of online friendships, not to mention what they can offer that’s above and beyond meatspace acquaintance. The topic’s been hashed and re-hashed, online and off, so don’t worry, I won’t attempt a treatise on it here. But it’s been on my mind a lot lately, the way that people can come together. I never can figure out if it’s the internet or if it’s the distance it bridges. You know, the old-fashioned logistics, the miles away-ness, that encourages intimacy.
Back before I was born (needless to say, well before the digital age) my mother began a correspondence that lasted for years, with someone she would never meet. My mother collected rare shells and via a classified ad in the back of some shell collector hobbyist magazine, she came to contact a Mrs. Rook, first name Winifred, who lived in Australia. On one of the very edges of Australia in fact, in a cottage she shared with her husband, Mr. Rook, keeper of theBustard Head Light.
I’ve still got the packet of wispy airmail envelopes. There’s not that many of them, but then again, it’s only one half of the conversation these two women had. Who knows what happened to the other half? I don’t remember how or why it came to an end, but my mom talked about that relationship for the rest of her life. She was kind of an odd soul, and she didn’t have a lot of friends, and none that shared her fascination with shells. So there was the great novelty of sharing this enthusiasm with someone she’d never met, coupled with how exciting it was to receive treasures from the Great Barrier Reef, tiny fragile things not much thicker than those blue and red envelopes. Shells that had survived intact, not just the postal journey but the week(s) long overland trek it took for them to get to the post from the Rook’s isolated compound. If it was during the rainy season, the mail was picked up by a bush pilot but only if there was something else important enough for him to actually land the plane, so there was often a long wait, after which my mother might get two or three blue letters, and a package! As for the mail and the shells she sent back, they were more often than not airdropped along with the lighthouse provisions. I think this was probably when my mother developed her trademark form of extreme package bondage, the fine art of which greatly amused my college room-mates years later as they watched me hack through layers and layers of criss-crossed strapping tape and brown paper.
When they heard about her friend in Australia, people always said it was too bad that my mother and she never got a chance to actually meet each other. My mom would nod or say yeah it was, but I’m not so sure she would have traded those blue letters for that chance.