Wednesday, September 5, 2012


The River

When I was in the third grade, everyone in Sister Denise’s class was assigned a pen pal from a third-grade class in South Carolina. My counterpart, a girl named Erica, sent me a list of questions. Do you live on a farm? Do you say “bucket” or “pail”? What is it like living by a river? The first two were easy: No. Bucket. (Pail? Really?)

But that last question stopped me. What was it like living by a river? I’d never really thought about the particular geography of my upbringing. The river just was. There, the way the sky is there. A thing in and of the landscape.

My grandpa always said that his four daughters were like salmon; they went upriver to spawn. (Gross. True, and pretty clever, but gross.) He was born and raised and lived and died in southeast Iowa, the part of the state where the Mississippi is at its widest. Every five or ten years the river rises out of its banks and puts another wheezing small town out of its misery. The summer my grandpa turned 62, one year before lung cancer finally finished with him, the river crested at 13 feet above floodstage. I was 11. After they reopened the bridge, we drove over to Illinois, through the town of Niota, where a waterline streaked every vinyl-covered shoebox that was still standing, to a buffet dinner at the lone restaurant of note in Nauvoo, a town near death itself but too far inland to have the river play Kevorkian. At the Hotel Nauvoo, I sucked Shirley Temples from highball glasses and made mountains of mashed potatoes, thick brown gravy flowing down from their peaks. After dinner when we headed back across the river, it was too dark to see the small town that was no longer there.  

At home, three hours to the north, we didn’t have floods like this. Weary from years of sandbagging, the forward-thinking people of my hometown built a floodwall in the late 1960s. And so in my lifetime, the river was never a threat. It was the opposite: a constant reminder of the world moving on while we stayed stationary. A prairie stands still with you. A lake has a slow, contained motion. The ocean rolls toward and away, but to stand on its shore is to feel you’re on the cusp of something big; you’re part of it.

The river, it passes. And all you can do is watch.

My upbringing on the banks of the Mississippi now seems quaint, of course. The idea that the physical landscape is what reminded me, as a child, that bigger things were happening elsewhere? Downright Huck Finnish. Now the internet is a bigger and better and faster and deeper reminder to small-town misfits everywhere that great things are happening everywhere else. It isn’t just a taunt, it’s a portal.

In pre-internet Iowa, pen pals were my portal. We sent handwritten letters. (I swear I am not as old as these details make me sound. I have an Instagram account. I listen to Azealia Banks. I use emoji.) After my school-appointed third-grade pen pal Erica, there was Kim, a girl my age I met at the hotel swimming pool in Kansas City on a family vacation. She was covered in freckles and her mother was fat. We traded a letter or two, but it didn’t really take. Then I discovered the diabetes circuit.

My sister, diagnosed with childhood diabetes at age five, had acquired a few pen pals — other kids who poked their fingers several times a day and gave themselves insulin shots in the upper arm or upper thigh or belly — by answering an ad in the back of Diabetes Forecast magazine. And some of those kids (girls, mostly) sent slambooks, stapled-together scraps of paper full of questions asked and answered. Analog Tumblrs. They were filled with proto-profile questions: What’s your favorite band? How old are you? This was the gateway drug. I acquired dozens of pen pals. Jessica in California. Melissa in New Jersey. Matthew, my first gay friend although I didn’t know it at the time, in Tennessee. Mina in Arkansas. They told me about practicing piano and going to their first dance. They sent stickers and school pictures. They asked what Iowa was like.

I don’t remember if I wrote that I had a boyfriend, or if I said my dad was rich, or what other lies I may have told. I do remember loving how I controlled the story of my life. My pen pals had no way of knowing that all of my pants were too short and my glasses too thick and I liked to stay indoors at recess and just read, because if I went outside the other kids threw kickballs at my head. They only knew what I told them: I ate bacon for breakfast, my favorite color was green, I got a Paula Abdul tape for Easter. I just told a few good details and left the rest unsaid, the way you reply when you’ve been on a disappointing vacation but don’t want to seem ungrateful when someone asks you about it.

The first time I realized my correspondents might be doing the same was when my only pen pal from Iowa, a girl named Kristin, sent a list of all the colognes she’d purchased her boyfriend for his birthday. Drakkar Noir. Cool Water. Aspen. First thought: Wow! How does she have the money to buy so much cologne? Those are, like, $50 each!! Second thought: Ohhh, she’s lying! She’s just listing all of the cool colognes she’s seen commercials for. Third thought: Ohhh, she’s probably lying about the boyfriend, too. About everything. I considered Kristin’s picture. She was chubby, with big, permed bangs and ruddy cheeks. Not exactly a fifth-grade heartthrob. Then again, you never know. She could have been the belle of Storm Lake, Iowa.

I kept these and all the other half-truths in a shallow plastic box under my bed.

One day, I just stopped replying. When I was 13, we moved to a new house, and I sold my Baby-Sitters Club books and stuffed animals at a yard sale. The long-unanswered letters went into the trash. That same year, seventh grade, I met my first real friends. You know, not the kids who grew up next door or happened to be in your Girl Scout troop. Not the weird kids I traded stickers with through the mail. The first friends I chose because we had something in common. My first real friend was named Rachel. She had the internet.

We used it to chat with boys. Or, we tried to use it to chat with boys. Most of our conversations were cut short because her parents paid by the hour. We spent most of our allotted time just looking for a chat room that seemed “cool.” When we finally found a chat-buddy, a self-identified 14-year-old (but maybe or even probably a fortysomething creepster?) in god knows what state, we told him who we were. Ann and Rachel, we typed. 13, we typed. Iowa, we typed. We didn’t mention the river.

Ann Friedman is a not-so-little lady from Dubuque. 

42 Comments / Post A Comment


"The Belle of Storm Lake, Iowa," forthcoming from Grand Central in spring 2013.


was perfect.@t


I think Nauvoo bounced back with the consecration of the Mormon temple.

This is wonderful.

psst...I like Dubuque okay, but Savanna/Sabula is more my speed.


I love this! My pen pals throughout the years were always the girls who happened to be in my cabin that summer at sleepaway camp. Milky pens came out when I was in 5th grade, so our letters always looked like they got sent through an explosion of neon and pastel. And we always exchanged school pictures, which I then taped to the cover of my binder, as if to show off to my every-day friends that I had awesome out-of-town friends.

ETA: my best friend when I was 14 and I would always stay up late at sleepovers going into chat rooms. I'm pretty sure no one we ever talked to (including us) was truthful about their a/s/l. It was almost like a game.

oh! valencia

@olivebee my penpals were the same - summer camp friends - and our letters were also mostly a vehicle to show off our fancy neon gel pens. One girl sent a few on black paper - that was the coolest.
I don't remember any of their names, except for the ones who later moved to my city and became real-life friends.

Valley Girl

@olivebee As much as I'm glad Facebook et al didn't exist in my formative years, it sure would have been a nice way to keep up with my summer camp friendships that all fell by the wayside. I still run nostalgic name searches sometimes.


Hey PinPal - Just want you to know that I do not leave out things purposefully in my letters. Whatever is left out is because my adult hand tires out way more easily than my grade school, used-to-writing-several-page-papers-in-cursive hand did.


I also had a pen pal I met in a hotel swimming pool. In Omaha. Hi, Kristine!


That last paragraph is a Nick Thune song.


I had a class-mandated pen pal in 7th grade. All she ever wrote about was her hopes of someday being a mother and wife.

Everyone else though got lots of questions about whether we all lived in igloos and spent our time ice fishing. I'm from Minnesota, and the pen pals were in California. My friends were super indignant and offended and wrote long letters describing the Mall of America.

Oh, squiggles

Pen pals never seem to work out for me. My 'Pin Pal got assigned a month ago and I haven't heard from her :-/


@Awesomely Nonfunctional Did you write her? B/c it would be pretty funny if you both were waiting for the first letter and were like, "whyyyy isn't she writing me!?"

Oh, squiggles

@Megano! Yes! I wrote a couple of days after getting her address. So now I get to question whether or not she hasn't written because I came off like a total spaz in my first letter.


@Awesomely Nonfunctional I"m sure that's not it. I haven't been super prompt with my Pin Pal. I just sent her one this week, and have been meaning to for like a month and a half...maybe even two months.


@Awesomely Nonfunctional I keep procrastinating on writing my first letter to my Pin Pal, too, and I've been meaning to for at least 2 weeks, maybe more. I kind of lost track. I am The Worst.

oh! valencia

@Awesomely Nonfunctional I'm having the SAME anxieties!


@Awesomely Nonfunctional I hope it's not meeee! Cuz I wrote my pin pal 2 times now, but it's always possible the postal service ate my letters! I'm really paranoid about that for some reason. But certified mail is a little excessive for this situation, dontcha think?

Oh, squiggles

I didn't mean to make anyone feel guilty!

But I am also worried about the lost letter possibility. :-/


@Awesomely Nonfunctional It could be me that you wrote to! Do you live with your boyfriend and your pets and you work in admin but want to write?

Oh, squiggles

@BoozinSusan That almost sounds like it could be me, but that wasn't what I wrote about :-/


I LOVE that you went to Kansas City for a vacation! Also, my (male freckly delusional) penpal from Alabama somehow got himself driven to my hometown to visit me... it was a little overwhelming and creepy. I thought I put it all behind me... but then there was Facebook. sigh.


I'm not that old, and I totally had elementary school pen pals. I don't remember any of their names or where they were from though.


@Megano! I always wonder what happened to one of mine, a girl from a few schools over. I remember her name, but we didn't go to high school together, so she must have moved.


@Megano! I had 2 mandated pen pals! One was a boy in Italy named Dario, and one was a girl in Australia who had my same (unusual) name.


@Megano! I had a pen pal in grade 6, from Ecuador. Her name was Mercedes. That's pretty much all I remember, we sent maybe 2 letters each.


@Maladydee Do you remember what city she lived in?


@whateverlolawants no, just that the students were all upper-class and really insulated and protected from most of the stuff that was going on in Ecuador at the time. My memory is kind of hazy, but I'm pretty sure there was a lot of turmoil in the area around then - it would have been 15 years ago.


@Ophelia My school penpal lived in Italy and also had the same name as me, i think they thought it would ensure friendship but we spelt it slightly differently which just led to confusion.
Also neither of us spoke/wrote the others language so we didn't really do much corresponding which was probably the main reason it didn't last!

Creature Cheeseman

Wow, this just reminded me that most of my "friends" in elementary school were actually diabetic pen pals. That was during the birth of AIM, so we would talk online almost every day. I wonder what all of them are doing now...


@Creature Cheeseman Stinky Cheeseman!!! That is all...


Oof, this post hits a nerve for me because I am SO incredibly bad at being a pen pal. A close friend recently moved to Spain, and I want nothing more than to regularly return her letters, but I have some terrible psychological hurdle blocking me from doing so. If it's not the stamps, it's my lack of envelopes, or some other trivial thing. In large part it's just me feeling like I have nothing eventful enough happening in my life to merit a letter. How could I compare to her exciting new-country happenings? But maybe I should just flesh out my letters with a few tall tales and elaborations upon my usual observations..after all, the best verbal storytellers always do a bit of exaggerating, why should it feel so weird to do so on paper?


@AM@twitter When I went abroad, it wasn't the content of the letters that mattered much. That was nice, but it was just nice to know someone thought of me and went to the trouble of sending me something.


I still have all the letters from my penpal Sara O'Boyle, a fellow violinist from my Omaha Suzuki group lessons who moved to Lima, Peru when I was about 11. We wrote faithfully for years. Her letters are all on that pale blue, wispy, delicate paper marked "Par Avion." I can't bear to throw them out. I remember the thrill when one would show up. I'd love to know what happened to her.


@Joanie http://music.cmu.edu/preparatoryschool/SSW_High.php Here she is! She's a violin teacher who plays with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

Hairpin magic.


@mirablu THANKS! I found her too but it's so sweet of you! I just called the people at that website and sent them an email to forward to her. Chills!

Girl Named Jack

I recently stumbled on a cache of letters from people I went to Band Camp with in high school. So many words, so little content. Still, it was nice to get mail. And really, you can never get bored with stories about All-State Band, amirite?


Lovely story. I lived for pen pals. I grew up in a small town in Michigan. One year we had international pen pals and mine was a by from Cairo. His first letter came on Cairo themed stationary, that was made to look like papyrus. No joke, and the stamp was a photo of the King Tut death mask. I nearly passed out because I clearly had the coolest pen pal out my entire group of classmates.


Oh my God I just found her!!!! I guess she stuck with violin a lot better than I did!!!


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