Girl Scouts and Penpals

Mar 16, 2010

As I write this blog post, I am sitting in the faculty room of an elementary school where my daughter comes on Monday nights to attend her “Brownie” meetings. My intention, in bringing my laptop with me tonight, was to crank out a few articles for my “real” job, but as I listen to the girls giggle and play in the room next door, I can’t help thinking back to my time as a Brownie, and ultimately, Girl Scout.

Let me say, right off, Girl Scouts was never “my thing.” I don’t know why. Well . . . okay . . . maybe I do. I’m just not a “group activity” type of person. I never have been and that was clear as early as the age of seven. Sadly, over the years, things haven’t really changed. When I attended group events in college, I hated the ice breaker activities. I used to tell my friends, when they would drag me places, “I will not be playing any games.” I didn’t even pledge or join a sorority. It just wasn’t for me. The thought of a sorority seemed like too many “parties with lots of people.” For the most part, I am a one-on-one type of girl. And Girl Scouts, well . . . it’s all about the “group” stuff . . . and that just didn’t rock my boat.

I did, though, for whatever reason, stick with Girl Scouts for three years. In fact, until I was in 5th grade, I attended all the meetings and went on every outing and field trip. After the age of ten, though, I was done. I don’t know if my mom asked me if I wanted to stop, or if I informed her that I was quitting. But, whatever the case may be, that was the end of Girl Scouts and me. I was happy to lay down my sash and put behind me the stress of earning all those badges.

As a result of my less-than-fond memories of my troop days, I really had no intention of encouraging my daughter to become a Brownie. (My husband, on the other hand, a former Eagle Scout, is anxiously counting the days until he can enroll our preschool boys in Cub Scouts – just another example of how he and I are polar opposites.) But, one day Jordan came home, telling me about how the girls in her kindergarten class were all Brownies . . . and could she (please, please, please) be one, too?

Ugh. Ick. Blah. “Must it begin already?” I thought.

I hesitated and hemmed and hawed, but ultimately, I relented and now, here we are in second grade and Jordan’s favorite activity of the whole week is her Girl Scout meeting. She loves, loves, loves Girl Scouts. I sometimes wonder if this means that she and I, too, are polar opposites.

The ironic thing is that, though I have a total of three specific Girl Scout memories to draw from - we went to see the play, Joseph and the Amazing, Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Paper Mill Playhouse, we made picture frames out of popsicles sticks (I still have mine) and . . . uhm . . .uhm . . . (okay, make that two whole memories) . . . if I had never joined Girl Scouts, and not stuck with it until the 5th grade, I would have lost out on one of the best relationships and friendships in my entire life.

At some point during my 5th grade year, our troop was given the opportunity to become penpals with girls in troops overseas. We were each asked if we’d like to do this and I immediately jumped at the opportunity. As I said, I am all for the “one-on-one” relationships and, even back then, I enjoyed writing. Not to mention, I was fascinated with the thought of getting to know a girl, my age, who lived in a whole other country.

“Sign me up!” I thought.

I still remember standing in the school cafeteria when I was handed a piece of paper with my “penpal’s” name and address on it. Sonia Roberts, it said. She was my age and she lived in Wales.

Where the heck is Wales, was my first thought? I had kind of expected England or France or even Russia. But, Wales? I was going to have to do a little research on that country.

But, even still, just seeing her name was so exciting to me.

Group events have never been my forté, but keeping in touch and maintaining friendships – that’s what I do best. My parents often say, teasingly, when I make a new friend, “Do they know that they now have to be your friend forever?”

When I saw Sonia’s name, I knew we were going to be great friends – even if she didn’t know it yet, too.

What I didn’t know, until years later, was that while I had been handed her name on a piece of paper, she had seen my name on a board and selected me, herself. I don’t know what drew her to pick my name, but I am certainly glad she did.

We began writing to each other and I was pleased to learn that, as quickly as I wrote to her, she’d write back to me. Even at that age, I knew finding someone who liked to correspond as regularly as me was a rare thing. She told me that she had a brother and a sister, that she had a dog, 2 cats, and 2 rabbits. She said she loved the group Wham and when she grew up, she wanted to be a pop singer (I’ll have to ask her how that worked out for her!). To be honest with you, I know exactly what she said in that first letter because I still have it . . . and her 2nd letter and her 3rd and her 54th and so on. I saved every single letter she ever wrote to me.

In return, I told her all about me. (Boy, would I like to go back and read those letters!)

What I remember most, though, isn’t particularly what we said in those letters, or what I told her about my life, but the fact that I had someone to tell it all to. I didn’t have to worry that Sonia would judge me, or my dreams, or my mistakes, or that she’d go and tell another friend and it would go around the whole school. She was a “safe place” for me. A friend I never argued with or with whom I ever had a disagreement. Of course, she was also a friend I never saw, other than in photos. But still, a friend in every sense of the word, who celebrated with me every achievement and commiserated with me every failure.

After a few years, we began to talk about meeting each other. It nearly seemed an impossible dream, but when we were both 16, it was arranged that she would come by herself to stay with me and my family, in New Jersey, for 3 weeks. I was thrilled.

Looking back, it’s quite amazing that Sonia’s family agreed to this. After all, what did they really know about us? Yet, here they were, willing to send their 16-year-old daughter to stay with a family they had never met, in America, for nearly a month.

I still remember waiting for her to come out of Custom’s at New York’s JFK airport. Would I recognize her, I wondered? Would we have anything to say to each other? Would I understand her accent?

As it turns out, I knew who she was the moment I set eyes on her. She was so tiny and cute. Shyer than I expected – at least, at first. To be honest, it took a few days for us to adjust to each other’s company – to become the friends in person that we were in our letters.

My family wanted her to experience America, so we took her everywhere. We went to New York City where we visited every landmark and took the ferry around Manhattan. We even spent a day on the set of All My Children and, though she had no idea who any of the actors were, we told her to stand next to them and smile for photos and said we’d “fill her in later.”

It wasn’t, though, until we were on our trip to Washington, DC that things became the most comfortable between us. On the car ride down, she suddenly told us (about a week into her visit) that we were not pronouncing her name correctly. It’s pronounced Saaaaannnn-ya, she’d tell us. And, we’d say, “Sooooooooooonnnnn-ya,” in our New Jersey accents. No, she’d correct. “Saaaaaaaan-ya.” I think this went on through the whole state of Maryland.

When we arrived at the hotel, “Saaaaaaan-ya” and I shared a room. As she went to take a shower, for the life of her, she could not figure out how to turn on our American faucet. After many attempts on her part, I finally went in, half frustrated and half amused and, showing her, said, “Listen, Welsh person, this is how you do it.” For some reason, this expression made us both laugh – a lot. And, from then on, it was as if the people we were in our letters, and the people we were in person, were finally one and the same.

By the time Sonia left to return to Wales, we were closer than friends. My entire family (grandparents, included) felt like she was a part of our family.

Over the years, our correspondence has changed a great deal. The internet was invented, email was created, Facebook emerged. Our handwritten letters (other than cards at Christmas time) have long since faded away. Now, we email regularly and about a year ago, I convinced her that she absolutely needed to create a Facebook account so I could easily see recent photos and we could keep up on each other’s daily lives. Whereas, in elementary school, I had to wait weeks for her to receive my letter and then respond back, these days, if I ask her a question, I may have a response in a matter of seconds.

We’ve both grown up a lot, too, of course. I married and had three kids. She married and had two. Both of us wished that each of us could have attended the other’s wedding, but as it often does, life and money and circumstance got in the way.

We both have dreams of someday meeting again . . . I keep telling Sonia that when my kids are old enough that I can bear to bring them on an international flight, she will be the first person we visit! I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but we will.

This month marks 25 years since Sonia and I wrote our first letters to each other. I truly cannot believe it. How is it possible that the years have gone by so quickly? It seems like just yesterday that I opened the mailbox to find her first letter and see her face for the first time in a school photo. And yet, I honestly cannot remember a day when Sonia was not a part of my life.

It’s so funny to think that, out of Girl Scouts, an activity for which I never really cared, came this wonderful, beautiful, meaningful component of my life.

Truly, you never know what blessings you may receive when you least expect it.

I certainly didn’t.

Happy Anniversary, Sonia!


Suzy said...

Beautiful story Kelly! Love it!

Tracie said...

What a beautiful story.....I did brownies, and I think I hated it more than you (and I didn't get a great friend out of it) but lately my daughter has been asking about doing it (and my crazy husband has been encouraging it)

So my revelation is...maybe something good can come out of girl scouts after all. I'm going to have to remember this the next time my daughter starts asking about it!

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