Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Story of Friendship and New Beginnings

When I was in high school, I wanted - as so many of those of us who write do - to write the Great Canadian Novel. Somehow, I got it into my head that I wanted it to take place in prison. Knowing nothing about the system, I went to one of my favorite teachers. Mr. Simon had a pen-pal club - mostly Jewish pen pals but he was able to give me the name and address of a man in prison in Ohio who had reached out to him for a pen pal.

I must say, writing that first paragraph, and in planning this blog at all, I did not realize that in those days, pen pals, writing, and letters included ONLY the physical, pen-and-paper, snail-mail variety. Today things are quite different, and I realized that only in beginning my story!

Well, I wrote to the man in Ohio. He told me he was in for 4-6 years, and had been caught on a drug charge. He was able to provide me much detail for my story, and as I had originally been up front with my purpose for writing him, this was a lovely honest foray into the world of pen pals.

Or so I thought.

He stopped writing after about a year. I wrote him, but received nothing back. I continued to write. For about 8 months, I wrote regularly, asking if he was okay. My letters were not returned. Nor was any reply. And one day, coming home from school, I saw my mother driving up the street to the bus stop to meet me. She opened the car door and said, "hop in." She handed me an envelope. It was from this man. As we drove home, I read the letter. He had written that he'd received all my letters but felt he could no longer respond to me, as he had not been truthful. He wasn't in for 4-6 years, he was in for 20. And the charge was not drugs, it was homicide.

My mom and I talked; I was a teenager, after all, and she was a protective mother. She allowed me to write back. We had a very open line of communication and she would sit and listen as I'd read her my letters to him, and the ones I'd receive back. So she was okay with this (believe it or not!).

I wrote him that I was glad to hear from him. And that my worry over his well-being was alleviated. But I told him it wasn't so much the new information I had received as the lie he had told. Why not just tell me up front? Today, years later, I know why he didn't tell me up front: would a teenaged girl be allowed to write a man in prison for murder?

The correspondence continued, until he stopped, once again. This time I did not pursue the relationship.

In my senior year, Mr. Simon came to me and asked if I was still interested in writing someone in prison. I said yes, so he invited me to his house that Saturday afternoon, and a friend and I went. He handed me a letter from a man who was 26 years old and had been in for 2 years already. This man was in Georgia and from what we found out, he was the only Jewish prisoner (or only openly Jewish prisoner) in the State. He was to be there the rest of his life and was looking for friendship.

I wrote him immediately. I introduced myself, told him how I'd originally come to the practice of a pen pal in prison, and told him of my previous experience. I sent it off, and went about my life.

2 weeks later - and I will never forget the date: May 1st, 1979 - I came home having left school early, not feeling well. The house was empty and in disarray; we'd had it sprayed for whatever ants or bugs had infiltrated our old duplex. But in my room, on my pillow, was an envelope with the return address from Georgia. Feeling better already, I sat down to read.

Instantly drawn in by his eloquence and articulate writing, I read his short introductory letter. His name was Larry and he said he was interested in a mutual exchange of ideas and news. I wrote him back right away. He had included a photo with his letter, so I did the same with my return reply.

I cannot adequately express how 34 years of a friendship has unfolded. For a teenager graduating high school, pursuing new ventures, this was to become a lovely consistent friendship. There were times I didn't hear from him, but continued to write. And when he told me that he was no longer fighting as much, because fighting meant he would be put in solitary and would miss two things: football and my letters, I felt this sense of giving to another that I had not felt in my life. Sure, I had volunteered at charities over the course of my high school years, and babysitting was still an ongoing activity/job for me. But this was the ability to affect another person's whole life, and I took that very seriously.

There were weeks where I would get 3 letters a day, for 3 or 4 days of the week. I came to anticipate his letters as much as he anticipated mine. He was funny, and well spoken, poignant, and honest. How did I know he was honest? I didn't. But he would tell me the good, the bad and the ugly and that trust was there.

In the first summer of our correspondence, I mentioned that I had been dancing around a topic I felt he knew I was curious about. He wrote me back that he knew that. In the next round of exchanges, I asked him to please enlighten me. He wrote back, "What do you want to know?" I wrote back (among other things), "isn't it obvious?" His next reply, "Yes, but I don't want to tell you more than you are ready to hear." I wrote back, "Just as much detail as you would like to tell." And he replied, "No. Ask me specific questions."

So I did. I basically said, "Okay...then, what? Where? When? Why? Who? and How?"

Out of respect for his privacy, I will not relate here what his answers were. But I will say that the day I got that letter, I was on Cape Cod with my family. I read aloud (as he knew was a habit to share with my mother and grandmother), and we were all held riveted by his narrative. And that is how I knew he was honest with me. He had warned me, from time to time, "they don't call us cons for nothing." But I was always sure of one thing: he would answer my questions, and I could count on him for that exchange.

We would talk on the phone as well. First time he phoned, I was curious to know if he sounded like Jimmy Carter (my only - at the time - Georgia-accent reference).  And he informed me, in the letter arranging the call, that the guards would be listening on the other end. I think I forgot about that by the 3rd or 4th call....but one call, he said, "they're flashing the lights." (signal to get off the phone). I said, "aww...hasn't even been that long." He said, "Well, they gave us a few extra minutes this time." Dripping with sarcasm, I said, "Oh, well, remind me to thank them." He laughed and said, "Oh, he heard that."

He'd talked to my mom as well - and she would even write him. She was like that.

Larry stuck with me through the acquisition of my first dog, and the tragic death of that dog 6 years later. He learned about my 2nd dog, and was in my life when, 14 years later, I had to put Toebi down. He mourned with me the deaths of all my grandparents, the first having died a month after we began corresponding. Larry stuck with me through my dating life, and even through my getting married. As difficult as it was for me to relate these details to him, he never once held back on his being happy for me.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I received a Siddur (Jewish prayer book) in the mail - inscribed to my as-yet-unborn child (which we did not know was a boy). It is a treasure I have held onto, and just recently, have given my son.

And when Larry told me he had met a woman who was visiting him regularly, and then told me of their plans to marry, I was filled with awe - that he had found someone so special as to overlook the obvious obstacles to many women, that he had the chance for a permanent companion, and that he would experience that special love everyone deserves, I was so joyous for them both.

I confess: I lost touch with Larry some years back. It was entirely my fault. Overwhelmed with personal issues, I let the friendship fall. And as much as I regretted doing so, and kept saying to myself that I would pick it up, energy was waning in all-but-immediate matters.

Then a few years ago, I got email from a woman who wanted to know if I was the same Lissa who had corresponded with her husband, and mentioned his name. I was thrilled, because she not only reconnected me and Larry, but she and I connected via Facebook. Suddenly, I was writing long newsy letters again, though the first one had to be hard: I had to tell Larry of my mom's death. It hit him hard, and that was not a surprise. He has a heart of gold.

I have not been the best correspondent.I have let my personal life interfere with my commitment to Larry and for the times I have upset him for that, I feel deep sorrow. I know I disappointed him many a time.

But he has the most forgiving nature and has always written back when I've picked up the thread again.

Now the news: last month, April 9th, 2013 to be exact, Larry walked out of prison, a free man after 36 years. He had been trying to make parole for years, but this time, he and Ginger were able to find placement for him that will be most helpful in his acclimation to the outside world after so long. When I read her status update proclaiming that her husband is breathing free air, my eyes welled, and I said a prayer of thanks. It is a day that I know they have waited for, for the 25 years they've been together. It is a day I hoped to see, in the 34 years I've known him. And now it is here, and there are no words to describe the absolute joy this event has brought.

Ginger reported that after stopping off to get a pair of jeans that would fit him (the ones he got were way too big), his first request upon being driven to his new (temporary!) home was to stop at McDonald's and enjoy fries - with lots of ketchup. The photo she posted on Facebook had me smiling through tears. And though the Facebook event I created has expired, I will reignite it here: Celebrating Freedom with Fries was what I called it, and I asked everyone to have McDonald's fries (or any other fries - or any food they wanted!) and toast Larry and Ginger with their food. We take a lot for granted, even what we eat; and I wanted to stop for a moment, and think about how much we do. I wanted not only to salute Larry's freedom, and these two very deserving people with a fun "toast", but I wanted to feel the novelty even in just eating that which is - at its best - mundane food for those of us who have never felt the deprivation.So if anyone is moved to take a photo of themselves in a "french fry toast", I hope to be able to show Larry that there are a lot of people with good hearts in this world.

Larry is in the placement home for 9 months, without ability to receive mail or phone calls - even from his wife - until he has completed the program. I think, for Ginger and Larry, it will be the longest 9 months they have ever experienced, but I also believe it will go faster than either of them expects. And the day he walks into their home will be a momentous celebration for all who know him, or her, or both.

I have been writing letters to him. Catching up from the last batch, and keeping him updated as things happen. I intend to print them all out, and mail them when he is home. I'm pretty sure they'll have other things to do when he gets there (*nudge nudge wink wink* << For Ginger who has a beautiful wicked sense of fun and humor)

I have a friend whose artistic abilities are so versatile, she is known for her incredible artful cakes, her beautiful rubber-stamped work (she is the one who introduced me to the art 19 years ago) and her paintings that defy description. But Reesa was first known to me as the "kippa lady". Her yarmulke creations have been seen on the heads of males from infants to older men, in synagogues, schools, homes, and at every celebration from wedding to bar-mitzvah to pidyonha'ben parties. I taught kids who wore Reesa originals; her artistic ability allowed kids to wear kipas that sported Batman, the Simpsons characters, Ninja Turtles, Disney characters, and anything or everything one could imagine. Her more elegant kippa creations include beautiful designs that range from simple to elaborate, and she does this all by hand.

I decided to ask Reesa's help in creating a kippa for my friend Larry. She created the one in this photo - and it sports his Hebrew name (Simcha Chaim Ben-Yehuda) which was translated into the Hebrew alphabet by my friend Jeff.

I thank both Reesa and Jeff for their help in creating this gift for Larry; he was instrumental in getting the State of Georgia to grant dispensation to Jewish prisoners for the High Holidays, and dietary exemptions on Pesach. He is one of the most devout people I know, and I believe that his faith has kept him going all these years.

Well that, and Ginger's love.

Now that he is free, I know there will be a lot of adjustments for him; but I look forward to a lot more communication - instantaneous, now that I'm sure Ginger will teach him Facebook (he told me she wanted him to learn and that he is reluctant - I promised it will be a thing I will push for as well!).

I hope that the absences between my letters will be redeemed by our ability to pick up online. I am so looking forward to hearing how he is feeling out in the world after all these years, and I know Ginger may be absent from Facebook for a few (couple?) days after he comes home (*wicked grins*) but I also hope that her big heart and her sweet nature will see her sharing some of the joy with those of us so blessed to call her friend.

I have learned that not judging a book by its cover (or even its table of contents) has been a wise road to walk. I had learned that lesson early in life, but my friendship with Larry cemented the value of those words.

I have learned that there will always be those who slot, cubby-hole and categorize people, but that if we do so, we are losing out on some of the deepest connections we might have otherwise had. And while my initial outreach to Larry was "fact-finding", the information he was helping me to glean for my writing became secondary; the friendship grew and thrived.

I have learned not to take things at face value all the time. I have learned not to take things for granted. Larry has been crucial in helping me appreciate that which I have, and not bemoaning that which I do not. If we learn anything in life, it is to look around us and truly, sincerely give thanks for the gifts we are given, strive to achieve what we can within our means, and never - EVER - give up hope for a better future. Larry has taught me, over 34 years, that very lesson.

Welcome home, my friend - 8 months to go!  And Ginger - hang in there. I'm sure you're verrrry busy making plans for The Day...I am so excited for you both!

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