Friendship is a sheltering tree.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In mid-March 2020, I returned from a trip to Mexico City and Troncones, Mexico to find a changing world impacted by an unfamiliar virus. Like everyone else, I stocked my pantry and prepared for the ugly sweep of the virus. I anticipated solitary days of reading, writing, yoga, and fiddling with a mountain of art supplies and having only my husband as entertainment. But that expectation remained on hold. While everyone else sheltered in place, I headed to the airport. I had company coming.
I wasn’t picking up a family member. Nor someone particularly close to me. Truth be told, I’d never met the person. Her name was Celia and she lived in England. And she’d been my PenPal since 1965.
In spite of the growing infection around the world, Celia’s first trip to America remained in order. She and her husband, Nick, had arrived in America two weeks before. They had toured in California -- driving a rental car down the Pacific Coast Highway, arriving in San Diego to visit a lodger they'd had a few years before.
As the world changed hourly, I’d checked with them a couple times via text. Seemed the virus trailed behind them down the California coast. With their flights still scheduled, they planned to plod on. I worried they might get trapped in America. Among other thoughts.
I was not nervous to meet her. I couldn't imagine it wouldn't be a fine meeting. Rather, I wasn't certain what might come with them from California -- or what we might give them -- before they could find a way back to England.
During WW2, my father was stationed in England. On the weekends a local woman, Ma Huckle, took in soldiers, fed them home-cooked meals, did their laundry, called them her sons, and offered moments of home, away from the bombings and terrors of the war.
My dad kept a written relationship with Ma Huckle, and her two daughters, after his return to the US. In 1965, Ma Huckle’s granddaughter, Celia, a year older than my eight years, and I became acquainted. We wrote our letters on onionskin paper as it was thin and didn't cost much to airmail across the Atlantic. My stationary was white. Hers was blue. We shared photos.
I don't recall much of what we said. The past 35 or 40 years our exchanges were only a yearly form Christmas letter, both of us penning a note at the end that we must truly meet one day.
Now, we were finally doing that -- in the midst of a pandemic. Yet her family had taken care of my dad in a harrowing time. I suppressed my fears and decided that no matter what lay ahead, I would take care of Celia now.
At the airport, only six or seven other cars were parked in the normally bulging short-term garage. The familiar dodge of vehicles while navigating the six-lane racetrack to enter the terminal didn't exist. Not a car or parking lot shuttle in sight. Reminded me of Omega Man, a really bad movie from my youth featuring the last person left on Earth.
Only two airport workers lingered inside by baggage claim. To say it was eerie is an understatement. I kept one foot in front of the other, and paced, trying not to touch anything. Of course, I had to pee.
I had no trouble recognizing Celia as she came down the escalator, and not because only 11 people were on the flight from San Diego.
In a normal time, we might have hugged. We didn't. I elbow bumped with her husband as they quickly gathered their bags. We chatted as I drove them the hour to my house, where my husband and I got them settled, took them for a boat ride, and welcomed them at our table for dinner.
Beyond the lack of an initial hug, it never entered my mind beyond that to not feel comfortable, to finally have this woman in her 60's, just like me, sitting at my table. A connection of over 55 years. I knew her, so well. I didn't say that, but she did, a day or so later. That we seemed to fit right together.
We spoke of our travels, our children, our current interests and curiosities. We joked about which of our leaders took more time with their hair in the morning. They drank lots of tea. We drank lots of wine.
Rain poured from the sky for the next three days. No letting up. Cold winds. No more boat rides. No warmth from the sun. All the stores and museums and everything we'd planned to share about our Central Texas world -- closed. One afternoon we drove to the LBJ Ranch. The buildings were closed but where, in a brief respite from the rain, we walked by the former president’s grave and the historical posters of the Civil Rights Movement and Lady Bird's quest for a wildflower and litter-free beauty for America.
Longhorn cattle and Herefords grazed only feet from our car as we drove through the ranch. Springtime in Texas. Baby cows. Wildflowers and green, green, green. A peaceful place for a brief afternoon away from whatever lurked in the real world, our newly knit group in our own bubble.
As the world tightened its borders, Celia’s travel agency arranged flights two days early. After a brief car tour to show off the capitol building and Austin's jewel, Barton Springs Pool, we walked along the trail of Town Lake (now known as Lady Bird Lake), before arriving again at the ghostly airport.
We didn't elbow bump a farewell. All of us, my husband and her husband. Celia and me, embraced. We had come full circle in our few days together. Over 55 years of correspondence across an ocean. Not quite the visit any of us ever imagined, but a coming together nonetheless.
Somewhere, in my attic, are Celia’s childhood letters. I'd intended to find them before she came, but life changed for all of us in the days leading up to her arrival. I'd been lolling on that beach in Troncones, Mexico and when I came home, all hell had broken loose in the world. Putting a well-stocked pantry together seemed more prudent than sorting through childhood boxes not opened in forty years.
I will find them one of these days as things return to a new normal. Meantime, as a gift, Celia brought me a tin of Dorset tea, a box of Moore biscuits and a jar of England's finest marmalade. Each afternoon since her departure, I’ve made myself a cup of Dorset tea. The biscuits are long gone, as is the marmalade.
At the end of our Christmas letters this year, I wonder what we’ll write. Maybe I’ll say something like how I can't wait until one day I drink a cup of tea and crunch a biscuit with marmalade in her English garden. Perhaps I’ll even hand her a ribbon-wrapped stack of old letters.
This essay first appeared in NextTribe online magazine. https://nexttribe.com/international-pen-pals/