To My Pen Pal in Hamburg

How a person I've never met helped get me through the worst year of my life.

A woman writing at her laptop computer.

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When I was a child, my grandmother often expressed the importance of communicating with everyone. She backed that up with her own behavior. When she walked down the street, she spoke to everyone. It did not matter if you were elderly or a child, or if you spoke English or Spanish. She had a smile and a conversation for you.

My grandmother knew people mattered, so she invested her time and energy in people. However, as she aged, she observed that her approach was becoming rare. She talked about how, in the age of technology, most people believe they do not have time for communications longer than a 160-character text message — much less time to develop genuine friendships that last for decades. In fact, people were barely speaking to one another.

As much as I hated to admit it, I had noticed it too.

My grandmother’s wisdom opened my mind to having a pen pal. This hobby — exchanging regular letters with someone on the other side of the world who you may never meet in person — was popular in the 20th century. But many people consider the practice outdated in the age of Facebook and Zoom. Today. when I reveal that among my longtime friendships is a relationship with a pen pal, people find it odd.

It isn’t odd — it’s wonderful. My relationship with my pen pal is one of the most valuable friendships I have ever had, even though I have never met her in person.

“You really have the heart of a fighter,” she said in her email.

It all started in 2013. I had gone to USC to meet with Kerstin Zilm, a German radio personality who wanted to interview me about being a struggling student at Long Beach City College. I didn’t know much about German culture or the German audience who would listen to the show, but I agreed to do the interview for two reasons. The first was that Kerstin was a journalist I trusted — she had mentored me when I was part of a program called Reporter Corps. Second, I had internalized my grandmother’s advice. I felt that telling my story to whoever was interested was better than keeping it to  myself. You never know ho could learn from my life experiences.

After the story aired, a woman named Renate reached out to Kerstin, inquiring how she could find me and help me financially with college. I thought it was great that Renate, who lives in Germany, wanted to assist with my education. My pride didn’t allow me to accept money, but I didn’t let the opening drop. Encouraged by Kerstin, I emailed Renate back, thanking her for inquiring about my status in school. This would be the beginning of a beautiful intercontinental friendship.

At first, Renate and I emailed each other twice a month. She wanted to know about my life growing up in Watts, my attempts to further my education, and whether there were ways beyond finances that she could help. I didn’t have a specific answer for her last question, but her moral support was important. Just having someone rooting for me and my education gave me a boost.

Her support kept coming, in various forms. She emailed me articles, sent books, and begin a tradition of having a cake delivered to me every December on my birthday. I emailed back more frequently. It got to a point where, when I had a good day, I couldn’t wait to tell Renate. And when I had a bad day, I couldn’t wait to tell her as well because I knew she’d make me feel better.

After one rough day at work, she reminded me how strong she thought I was. “You really have the heart of a fighter,” she said in her email. “But fortunately you also got soul, smarts, and compassion. In this way you are a rich person.”

Whenever I needed encouragement, she always delivered. After a couple of years of pen pal friendship, we were emailing at least once a week.

The more I spoke to Renate, the more I learned about her family life, her culture, and her world. I learned that, like many Germans, she celebrates Christmas on December 24. I learned that she has three daughters and a couple of pets. And I learned that, while she is a doctor who has an obstetrics and gynecology practice with a friend, she also has ambitions to hold a political position in Hamburg.

Mostly, across the distance, I glimpsed her kindness and thoughtfulness. She gives away bouquets of flowers weekly to her patients.

We continued emailing often, and even made plans to meet each other in person, in Europe, in spring 2020. Renate advised that, to make most of the experience, I should consider taking a month off from work so I could do more than visit her in Hamburg. I should get to London, Amsterdam, and other nearby cities. I had never taken a month off work or been out of the country before, so I was beyond excited to meet my pen pal and plan a trip of this magnitude.

But as I prepared for what I thought would be a trip to remember, I received the worst news I’d ever gotten. In December 2019, I learned that my grandmother, who had been struggling since suffering a stroke earlier in the year, had also been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and only had a few months to live. I was devastated at the thought of losing the woman who raised me.

I quickly advised Renae that I was in no state to travel anywhere. She, of course, understood — and let me know that she was there for me as I dealt with this devastating loss.

And she was as good as her word. We communicated as much as ever before. She sent handwritten notes, emails, encouraging articles, and small gifts to bring me peace. She soon became a better friend to me than some of the friends I had known personally and longer.

In March 2020, my grandmother passed away. I wasn’t quite prepared emotionally to travel just then, but I promised myself that I would definitely meet Renate one day. Just as I started to figure out how and when to reschedule the visit, the coronavirus arrived and changed life as we knew it. Travel to Europe was banned and would not reopen for more than a year.

The loss of my grandmother and the arrival of the pandemic were twin blows that deeply saddened me. Fortunately, Renate, who had recently become a grandmother herself, never stopped offering me words of encouragement. The prayers kept coming. She advised me to think back on positive memories of my grandmother. In one email, Renate wrote, “Keep the attitude your Grandma taught you. See things as she did. Deep down in your character and soul, it will be your spiritual gold nugget. Also, remember all the good times you spent with your grandmother. She contributed a lot to who you are — a very precious person. She will send you more such gifts from heaven.”

When I read it, I smiled for the first time in months. It was good advice. It also reminded me of how my grandmother had taught the importance of communicating, of establishing bonds with others. It seemed fitting that my bond with Renate was helping me handle the loss of my grandmother. Our friendship has become so important to me that I can no longer envision a life in which I am not her friend.

I write this now, shortly after receiving a email from her about the weather in Hamburg. She advises me that she wants nothing more for me than to “Be successful!” this year. She adds, “Occasional flops are allowed as long as you get up after stumbling, fix your crown and continue walking [with] confidence.”

Reading the email, I think of how important it is to me that I meet Renate in person — that the emails, pictures, and texts, while important, are not enough.

My pen pal for nearly a decade has sent me virtual hugs at the moments in life when I needed them most. I am more determined than ever that, as soon as life makes it possible, I will get on a plane and turn all the virtual hugs into real ones.

Shanice Joseph is a sociology student at Long Beach City College and has lived in Watts for more than 20 years. She has a passion for helping her community and educating others through her writing.

First appeared at Zócalo Public Square

This article is featured in the November/December 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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