A Life-Changing Gift
To so many people now, writing to someone means typing in a few words, entering an e-mail address and touching a button to zap those words across town or around the world.
Or simply mashing a few letters on your cell phone and sending a "tweet" to let the world know your feelings about things large and small.
But I remember a somewhat simpler time. When you waited beside the rural mailbox just in hopes of getting good news from a loved one far away….
Most kids don’t even know what "airmail" was.
But I can still remember the fresh smell of a box of whisper-thin airmail stationery. That box, sealed in crinkling cellophane with red-and-blue bordered envelopes and 20 airmail stamps tucked inside, was a gift that would change my thinking — as well as my life — but I didn’t know it then.
Growing up in the 1960s was sometimes confusing to even those from the most stable families.
And I was one of the most confused! Everything about me seemed to be in constant conflict.
I defiantly wore a metal peace symbol on a leather cord around my neck as the Vietnam War claimed too many former students from my small-town high school. But just as much as I hated the war, I loved the soldiers, scribbling poems about their heroism.
I was completely at odds with most of my teachers.
My English teacher accused me of copying published articles and poems when I turned in my assignments, saying a senior "like you" couldn’t possibly have written such works. Her almost daily ridicule made me sink even further into my self-protective shell.
I was so discouraged that I felt no one noticed when those same poems about my feelings were published in the local newspaper.
My letters to the editor were published in both of Birmingham’s daily newspapers, for while I was persistent in my feelings that the war was wrong, I was equally adamant about my feelings toward those who marched, protesting in the name of "peace" while violently turning against their hecklers.
Confusion continued about practically everything in my life and my unpredictable nature surfaced as I promptly fell head-over-heels for a dashing soldier set to return to Vietnam within a few days. During the last hours of his leave, I spent my entire physical education class talking to him in the high school gym’s old lobby before a final, teary goodbye.
What a contradiction I was (or MAYBE just a normal teenager, but I didn’t realize it then)!
Christmas holidays of a senior year were supposed to be special; at least that’s what my teen magazines told me! However, my boyfriend was in Vietnam and I was feeling anything but holiday spirit on that cold, dreary day in 1969 when I rode to school with a friend the last day before Christmas vacation. Didn’t anyone understand me???
Friends and relatives thought I should be "living it up" — enjoying dates and friends at home, not pining for a soldier far away…
Tiny Leeta Pesnell was feared by most of her students because she taught her science classes with a healthy dose of morality thrown in. If you tried to cheat in her class, you felt so guilty her eyes would haunt your dreams for weeks!
It seemed we students feared her, despised her, revered and respected her almost in the same breath.
I was her third-period teacher’s aide. I washed hundreds of slippery glass microscope slides. Some days it seemed I reeked of the formaldehyde used to preserve the tiny animals her classes dissected.
I don’t remember what token gift I selected and tossed onto her desk that last day before Christmas vacation, but I’ll always remember the gift she handed to me.
As I unwrapped the box of airmail stationery and counted the neat row of stamps, I couldn’t believe it. She understood! She didn’t try to judge me or condemn me, she just loved me.
I wrote long letters to Jim in Vietnam on those thin pages. All the while, Mrs. Pesnell encouraged me to read the stacks of Christian and nature magazines she kept on the corner of her desk.
"Read this," she’d say to me.
"You could write something like this," she’d encouraged, pointing to a human-interest article.
She REALLY believed in me!
Maybe I didn’t fit in with the popular crowd or in the mold where most thought I should squeeze, but she showed me how my caring about others would help me find my way with God’s help.
Jim served three tours in Vietnam, enjoyed a successful career in the Army, then worked FOR the Army until cancer claimed him four years ago this month on a cold Kentucky February day.
Although we didn’t marry each other, our families remained close friends. He came to see us once with a huge surprise. He’d found all 89 of the letters I’d written to him in Vietnam, neatly stored in his father’s attic.
As we all looked over the bright airmail envelopes and page after page of my rounded, teenage scrawl, my mind traveled back to that high school lab where Mrs. Pesnell taught me one of my life’s most important lessons.
She didn’t lecture, she didn’t preach a sermon.
With a plain box of airmail stationery she showed me how God’s message is always best presented — simply and with love.
And although Mrs. Pesnell has been dead many years, she did live long enough to read some of my articles in some of those same magazines she used to keep on her desk!
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.