Pen Pals

Old School & Offline, Part 2

There was a time when I loved getting mail. As a kid, walking to the end of the driveway, opening the yellow mailbox and gathering the cards and letters and catalogs was a thrill matched only by discovering an aerogram in the daily stack from my British pen pal, Alexandria, her words as ethereal as the delicate paper they were written upon.

Then, everything changed. I grew up. Moved across the country. Got my first email account—CompuServe, dialed up on the landline—to keep in touch with my father, who was slow to grasp the concept and followed up with a phone call after every email to make sure I’d received his message.

And then, I got bills, my tiny apartment mail slot overflowing with envelopes from Pacific Gas & Electric, Montgomery Ward, Comerica Bank. Aside from an occasional card and clippings from my mother, or Cook & Tell, the monthly newsletter she published for 30-plus years, or the handful of Christmas cards from friends back East, getting mail was a joyless experience.

Until recently.

This year, I launched a digital reboot of the old Cook & Tell newsletter, blasting vignettes and vintage recipes into the digital world to a new generation of readers. And, like my mother had in the past, I get mail. But where her fan mail had filled our old yellow mailbox with notecards and chatty letters and recipes, mine is mostly electronic. An inbox bursting with email can be, I guess, validating, yet nothing beats a handwritten note.

Somehow along the way, I’ve also gained a handful of pen pals. Legitimate pen pals. Readers and writers who share my enjoyment of things old school and offline. Handwritten letters and Xeroxed articles clipped from the Sunday Times, exchanged with a woman in my online writing group. Notecards and vegan recipes from a subscriber who writes a blog about distance running and enjoys baking as much as I do. A fellow food-writer who sent not just a letter but an entire fruitcake she’d baked from scratch. The postcard poetry series I sent to a friend who writes poetry, who, in turn, shared her family recipe for pickled herring.                                                   

My physical mailbox is not exactly jam-packed with letters, but receiving an occasional card and accompanying clipping or handwritten recipe, graced with a colorful stamp, sealed with an embossed sticker? Pure gold.  

This curious juxtaposition of digital and analog—where the ephemeral meets the tangible—is proof that these two worlds can coexist. Peacefully and joyfully.

field notes: stirring the sauce

from the other crabapple cove

First, walk out back to the apple orchard. Observe the weather-beaten wooden ladder you once climbed to the old treehouse your father built fifty years ago and how it’s still propped against one of the crabapple trees. Gaze at the ancient trees, how they stretch toward the heavens. Notice there are more than you remembered, their gnarled branches like an enchanted forest fairy tale, spanning across the brook into the overgrown woods where you once played. Marvel at the low buzz of the September afternoon—the bees are back this year, buzzing between raspberry and apple seasons in the yard left half-wild. Walk carefully, gently, through the blooming asters, through the swarms of bees. Revel in being alive as you squish a crabapple—half-eaten by the doe and her fawns who reside in the woods—beneath the multi-colored rainboots you wear to ward off the ticks.

Stare into the nearly bare branches and select a couple dozen apples that aren’t rotten, wondering if it was just a bad year for apples or maybe the deer were exceptionally hungry.

Delicately place your apples in the bright orange enamel colander your mother always used—a wedding gift from her first marriage—for pasta-draining, lettuce-washing, and yes, crabapple-rinsing every fall. Rinse, drain, peel and core them, and register your astonishment at how tedious a job prepping crabapples the size of golf balls turns out to be.

Remember all the Septembers your mother made this applesauce, with all the crabapples you plucked from the trees together, and smile because you’re standing in the exact same spot in the kitchen that she was the last time she made it. Chop into tiny chunks and place them in the vintage crockpot your mother made this applesauce in for twenty years. Add spices and sugar; cover with apple cider and cook on low until your entire house is enveloped in the deep earthy scents of the orchard, of leaf piles and muddy trails, of autumn.

Realize the transformation in becoming your mother is nearly complete.


riding the waves of summer

There were fireflies and stars. The sky stayed light forever.

The walk across the footbridge to Barrett’s Beach. Fireworks over the harbor. A crab roll, sweet and delicate. The view of the cove from my bedroom window. Paddling the kayak to the trail on Indiantown Island. Breakfast cookies under the red umbrella, the other dog named Max, mussels swirling in white wine and garlic at the Wharf. The guy who mows my lawn and his dog Scout, still damp from a swim. Potluck suppers. The hermits I baked and how they smelled like Christmas. A heavenly hash ice cream cone by a duckpond. A dip in the cove, the icy embrace of the sea. The library’s Annual Book & Bake sale. Campfires and thunderstorms. Morning run to Pratt’s Island, sand in my socks. My tiny kitchen where magic happens. The attic archives on a rainy afternoon. The sea pups surrounding my paddleboard. Black-eyed Susans and day lilies. The Appalachian Trail. Seeing old friends at the hardware, the beach, the grocery store. Vintage crockpots. My mother’s cast iron skillet. The books my grandparents wrote. The entire month of July. The rush of the brook after a rainstorm. Oysters. Lobster. The last of the June strawberries in a summer cake. A swim in Lucerne Lake, the last place I lived before I moved west. Winning at cornhole. Marshmallow Fluff from the jar. A trail map from Katahdin Woods and Waters. How the blueberry cake melts on my tongue. Riding the ski lift to the top of Sugarloaf. The black-and-white snapshot of my parents before I was born. Diving off the dock. Dusty boxes filled with my mother’s journals. Smore’s, s’mores pie, s’mores brownie squares. How silence seeps into the soul. Camp week at the lake, my niece yelling “YOLO, Auntie!” as she cannonballs off the boat. Molasses donuts from Moody’s Diner, thick and rugged. Swimsuits dripping on the clothesline. A stack of old cookbooks and a dystopian novel. A surprise birthday party for my stepmother, party hats and noisemakers. Ketchup chips, tangy and crisp, from an unplanned road trip to Quebec. My 23-year-old Volvo wagon. A soggy ice cream sandwich on the ferry ride back from Islesboro.

In my first herb garden, I planted thyme. Because we always need more.