One bright October day I dropped a letter in the mailbox. It was addressed simply to “Mary, volunteer at the Wild Gardens of Acadia.” The letter would travel from the Carolinas, where I live, all the way to Maine in the middle of a pandemic, with little information. I didn’t know Mary’s last name or address, so I had no idea if it would find her.
I’d met Mary once, briefly, when we talked for five minutes while she was on duty at Acadia National Park. My family had driven to Maine for a low-risk, low-budget camping trip, complete with compostable gloves for pumping gas and two negative COVID tests. Like everyone else this year, we needed a change of scenery, and camping felt safe.
Mary works at Acadia’s Wild Gardens, a magical place that highlights the park’s native plants. In 2020 her job was to let people know masks were required, brochures were not available, and the pathway through the gardens was a one-way street. Somehow she managed to be charming about the whole thing. When I walked past her with my dog to explore a nearby trail, she called out with abandon, “You won’t regret it!”
When Mary introduced me to the Wild Gardens, I liked her immediately for showing such care and dedication. I asked if she was a gardener and told her I loved her hat, which was adorably oversized. She said she’s an enthusiast, not a gardener, and that she and her husband, both retired, serve as park volunteers. Then she described how kind visitors had been during the pandemic: They were agreeable about mask wearing and frequently told her husband, who at 68 was the youngest on a team responsible for trail maintenance, how much they appreciated his hard work. Mary’s optimism was enchanting. I kept thinking about her after I left, wondering if she’d been a friend waiting to happen.
What did I have to lose? When I got home, I sent a letter into the void. I used the park’s address and the only information I had about Mary. “I loved meeting you, and if you’d like to write back,” I added, “I’ll be here.”
I went on with life hopeful but not holding my breath—I wasn’t sure my letter would make it. Imagine my surprise, then, when Mary wrote back.
Now, armed with paper, ink, and stamps, supported by an army of postal workers whose jobs are at risk, Mary and I are getting acquainted the old-fashioned way. She’s telling me, slowly and in many installments, how she ended up in Maine. I’m asking questions about her life and sharing hopes for my own, complete with poems, cartoon clippings, and snapshots of my dog. I’d often wondered how to foster intergenerational friendships, which were hard to find even before the pandemic, but I’d never considered using my mailbox.
Having a pen pal changed quarantine—it was like my door cracked open and new light beamed through. Visiting the mailbox became a source of joy, and I was reminded that a little connection can go a long way.
I am not the only person, it turns out, exploring letter writing during this pandemic. Last spring amid new lockdown measures, journalist Rachel Syme bought an old typewriter that “looks like a spaceship,” as she puts it, and started sending letters to friends. She was transported back to middle school, when she spent entire school years writing everyone from summer camp. Caught in a wave of crafting and nostalgia, she requested pen pals on Instagram but, to her surprise, ended up with more than she could handle. On Twitter she asked if anyone wanted one of her pen pals.