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Vicarious Travels Via the Mail

A DOLL-LIKE bride in Japan changes from her elaborate kimono worn during a Shinto ceremony to a Victorian white satin gown for a Western ceremony that follows. I see no smiles until she's surrounded by children at the reception. A few weeks later I'm walking with a friend in Central America beside Lake Nicaragua where tropical sun sparkles on the water. Once a year I stand by the window in an old apartment building in Budapest to watch the tanks and guns rumble down a street in the annual May Day parade. Then on to India to see a groom riding into a small village upon a white stallion to claim his bride.

I can do all this without buying a ticket or needing a passport by merely walking to my mailbox. It all began in the early 1950s under President Eisenhower's ``People to People'' program, a letter exchange that invited me into the personal lives of people all over the world through words and pictures.

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Dev, my man in India, wrote semi-annually. He was a serious, highly educated man (his knowledge of US history put me to shame!) with a large family that still abided by ancient customs. I once sent some magazines to give his wife a look into the everyday life of women in America. That was a mistake. Not only did these summer issues show women in bathing suits, they included recipes and pictures of meat. He let me know how offensive these were to them.

Of course I fired back an apology for my ignorance to which he fired back an apology for making me feel badly! Once we got this out of the way our relationship was well on track again. I always answered any questions with the notation that this was my own personal opinion, that we Americans are definitely individual thinkers.

In spite of his seriousness, he showed a tender and poetic side when he described a grandchild he was about to wash and put to bed, ``so charming with mud on his clothes and the smile of an angel on his face.'' Through one letter telling of his son's wedding I could almost hear the tinkling bells on the rented elephants in the procession and see the colorful saris worn by the women. Almost every letter included a description of preparation for a festival. ``We Indians are very superstitious and wouldn't dare not to participate in these festivals which occur almost weekly at some times of the year!''

ANOTHER long-term correspondence was with Luis de Trinidad, a teacher and poet in Managua. Living in poverty under terrible political oppression, he managed to write in his beautiful penmanship and flawless English almost monthly. His letters were gentle, descriptive, and haunting. I asked what I might do for him to ease his life but he said just being able to exchange letters was enough.

His brother, also a teacher, was murdered and Luis knew he too was being watched, that his own students had been asked to act as spies to monitor anything he said or did which might be against government policy. This man was interested only in writing and poetry, not politics. Still he was suspect. The last letter I ever got from him said he was afraid for his life. After the earthquake that devastated Managua, I tried to trace him through the Red Cross but wasn't successful.

One day in 1951 I received an official-looking letter from People to People asking if I'd care to be the first to have a correspondent behind the Iron Curtain on a trial basis? Of course I would! Should I feel at any time that the correspondence was leading to any uncomfortable situations, I was to let them know. They gave me specific guidelines with do's and don'ts mostly dealing with mention of politics, religion, the usual taboo subjects.

That's how I made my connection with Otto in Budapest, Hungary, which lasted over 36 years. He was my most prolific writer, often answering immediately upon receiving a letter from me. Having small children and a home to care for, I was constantly on the owing end. Otto probably presented the greatest challenge because the contrast in our lives was so distinct. I tried to share my joys without having them become a comparison to his difficult life.

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I strongly suspected censorship, but one letter did come through after many years of our exchange which seemed more open than any other he ever sent. Perhaps it was smuggled out by someone. It told of his mother's years during the war in a concentration camp and of a friend who was caught selling a pair of nylons on the black market. He went to the bank where she worked to enquire about her and was told no employee by that name ever worked for them. When he went to her house, the parents also denied ever having a daughter.

Otto's letters never expressed joy or happiness except about our friendship and the stamps which he and my husband exchanged. Embroidery, for which the Hungarians are so famous, adorns my home now, and our friendship remains in my heart.

Not all my connections were long term. A student in India wrote asking me to please contact the Rockefellers immediately to support him through college! I quickly informed him I was not on any terms with Mr. R. or his family. He reduced his request to some typing paper and pencils, which I promptly sent. After a polite note of thanks, the correspondence came to a halt.

And there was the dear little Japanese lady who, after seeing pictures of my baby, wanted to be known as ``Auntie.'' In my third letter to her I said that someday I wanted to come visit her. Through a glitch in translation she thought I was on my way. This sent her into a total panic. I wasn't aware of all this until the letter asking, ``Which ship? Which dock? What date? How long will you be staying?''

The relief when she learned I wasn't coming, that it was only a wishful dream, poured from the pages. She lived in a small village; I would have been the first American to ever come there, and she would have lost face if she didn't entertain me properly. To do that would have wiped out her meager savings. The prospect of a future life in abject poverty caused her to go into a physical decline until my letter arrived. As she put it, ``I can breathe again!'' That was the last I ever heard of our dear ``Auntie'' in Japan! I doubt she ever applied for any more pen-pals who required translating!

Among the shortest and funniest letter exchanges was a movie director (or so he said!) in Chile. He claimed to fall madly in love with me after receiving my (requested) picture. It didn't matter that I was married with children. He was coming to sweep me into his arms and carry me back to his country. (At this point I could really relate to ``Auntie!'') The color didn't return to my face until I got to the P.S. at the end of the letter - ``We Latin Americans tend to be hot-blooded. And I lie a lot!'' It seemed he was between love affairs with his leading ladies and I was a nice fantasy fill-in!

Time and circumstances have reduced my one-time list of 15 overseas correspondents to a faithful three - Heather in England who ``takes me with her'' on holidays to castles in Scotland and luncheons in villas in sunny Greece, and Mitsuo and Senkichiro in Japan. We've shared our child-raising experiences, views on politics, joy over the arrival of grandchildren. Senkichiro is the only one I've actually had the pleasure of meeting in person during his two visits to the United States. Our family photo album includes an international family with all skin colors, lifestyles, religions, sizes, and shapes.

All these letters through the years gave me far more than entertainment. They gave me a deeper sense of life itself, a glimpse of the true substance which cannot be interrupted, even by death. The bonds are eternal. Dev, Otto, Luis all remain a part of my life.

Maybe my present, mostly domestic-type letter writing isn't quite as exotic as it was during those years, but people often feel free to reveal innermost thoughts and dreams that don't surface any other way. It's a specialized kind of closeness.

You can take away my microwave. Take away my clothes dryer. (I can always drape things over the fence or from the branches of the tree out front.) Take away my charge cards. But don't ever take away the mail service. No matter how high the postage rates may go, it will be well worth the price.

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