The 1980s were filled with lots of pretty terrible ideas: big hair, ‘New Coke,’ and shoulder pads come to mind. But one 80s-specific trend that was, in theory, a terrible idea turned into one of the best little things to ever happen to me.
Back around 1984 or 1985, my elementary school hosted a balloon launch. But not just any old balloon launch where a bunch of little kids stand around in a field and watch balloons fly up into the air, never to be seen again. Nooooooo no no no. Remember: this was the 1980s. This balloon launch was special. Because at the end of each balloon was the FULL name and COMPLETE home address of each and every little tiny person who attended my school. And since I was one of the said little tiny people at that time, I dutifully filled out my little 5x9 index card and launched it into the air for strangers to find so that they could write back to me and teach me about being pen pals! Or, you know, come and murder my family and me in cold blood.
|Dear Stranger, Feel free to come kill|
me at any time...here's my address!
Luckily for the 1980s, kids were busy being warned about the dangers of people luring them into their windowless vans with puppies and Halloween candy with razor blades in them to worry about a silly old pen-pal endeavor. So, you know, launching balloons into the air with all of our detailed contact information attached was perfectly fine! What could go wrong?
Well, for me, nothing. Because while friends and even my own sister had some luck with random strangers finding their weird, lonely balloons and writing them back once or twice, I had the great fortune of my weird, lonely balloon wandering from a park in Michigan into a field in Meadville, PA for Mr. Fox and his dog to find. And his wife, Anna, wrote me back. And she continued writing me back for the next 32 years.
Mrs. Fox was never Anna to me, she was always Mrs. Fox since I was raised during a time when respecting your elders was a thing and I was 8 years old. And even on her return address label she wasn’t Anna. She was always Mrs. Dan Fox.
She had beautiful, old-school penmanship. The kind of penmanship where you could tell there was time spent practicing. Unlike my penmanship, which looks a little like a cross between a ransom note and someone writing their name with their non-dominant hand.
She would write on flowery stationary – both sides – and ask all sorts of questions about school and my friends and my hobbies. She’d remember every single birthday. She’d remember every single holiday. At Christmas, she’d always send an ornament and a gift.
When I moved from Dearborn to Farmington, her letters followed. When I moved from elementary to middle school, her letters followed. When I moved from high school and then college – her letters followed. And all the while, we never met. I think we exchanged phone numbers once – there may have even been one phone call back in the day. But otherwise, it was a relationship built upon words. A relationship built upon the randomness of the wind and the lost art of letter-writing. And I cherished it for three decades.
When I moved to New York City, Mrs. Fox’s letters followed. And, to be clear, they were always from “Dan and Anna Mary.” But I’m pretty sure, similar to how CB’s names are on the Christmas cards we send out each year, Mr. Fox had little involvement with the actual mailing and writing. But he, too, was a huge part of my life in stories.
I learned of their nieces and nephews, their travels, their church activities. I wondered – more than once, but never to them – how two people who were so clearly made-to-be-grandparents never had children of their own, while quietly being grateful that they’d adopted me as their honorary granddaughter. I’d sometimes let six months go by between letters, always apologizing and sometimes rushing through a brief update of my oh-so-important life and, without fail, about 3-6 weeks later, I’d get another flowery letter in the mail.
In 2009, the flowery letter I got also had a newspaper clipping attached, and it was news that Mr. Fox had passed away at the age of 91. And some questions were answered that day, via his obituary. Mainly the ones too delicate to ever ask about.
Nonetheless, while the handwriting got a little less legible over the years, the stories never got shorter and the questions never waned. As she aged, she seemed to cherish the photos I’d send her of various life events or random fun things I thought she might enjoy.
Which is why I was a little concerned when, last spring, I didn’t receive a response back after I wrote her with news of my second pregnancy. She’d been so excited to see the pictures of my littlest – and now oldest – daughter growing up so fast in her first year, so I figured it was likely just the result of older age, some health issues over the years, and less energy. So I wrote again over the summer, right around RJC’s first birthday, complete with pictures and updates. No word. Then Halloween came and went without a card – which had never happened in all of the years we’d been corresponding. And then my fall update went unanswered. Then my birthday passed. And then I started Googling.
I knew she’d had a stroke within the last few years – she’d written of it often and apologized for her handwriting, to which I would laugh and tell her I was just happy she was still writing letters! And each time I’d type her name into the search field, I’d hold my breath and wait.
A few months later. Search field. Hold breath. Nothing.
And then today: search field. Hold breath. BING. There it was. The very first result.
Mrs. Dan Fox; Mrs. Fox; Anna was gone. Passed away at her home, no further information given about the cause, though I have a few guesses. All of them peaceful, since that’s how life should work.
Thank you for showing me love all of these years. Thank you for being my third grandmother. Thank you for caring. Thank you for writing. Thank you for following me through the first half of my life. Thank you for finding my balloon that day.
You will be missed. Your ornaments will hang on my tree and your flowery stationary will stay safely tucked inside my keepsake box next to the bed so that I can share your stories with my kids and remind them that strangers can become family, and family isn’t always made up of the people with whom you share your DNA. Hell, in my case, you never even get to meet some of them. But that has little import, as it turns out, in the end.
Rest in Peace, dear friend.