Unmet Friends

By Harry Anderson

Virginia (“Ginny”) Martin lives in Glocester, Rhode Island. Gillian (“Gill”) Riddick lives in Gloucester, England. They have been close friends for 42 years. The remarkable thing, though, is Ginny and Gill have never met.

“How can that be?” a visitor asked Ginny.

“It all began in 1976 when I wrote my first letter to Gill.”

Back then, America was celebrating its bicentennial, and Ponaganset High School’s Band Parents Association thought it a good idea to connect with Glocester’s “sister city” – Gloucester, England, reasoning that the school’s wind ensemble, made up by 62 students, would be perfect ambassadors. Under the direction of the late Nedo Pandolfi, the ensemble’s music-maker had become well known in Rhode Island and beyond.

Overcoming the improbability of raising money to finance such a scheme in just three months, the combined efforts of the Association and the students themselves succeeded. A key component to the scheme was to find someone in England who was in sync with the idea and who would schedule performing dates and handle such other logistics as finding families to house the students for six days. That someone was found: Denis Taylor and his right hand man, Keith Riddick.

Because the Riddicks’ youngest son, Mark, was also a trumpet player, Lee Martin’s billet was their home. He would return to Rhode Island, telling of his adventures and of the graciousness of his host family. Ginny immediately posted a thank-you letter. Forty-two years later, she is still writing letters to the woman who, for six days so long ago, had taken Lee under her wing.

Back and forth across “the pond” (in the lingo of the Brits) the exchange of letters flew. “About every three weeks,” Ginny reckons, “we write to each other. From the start Gill and I hit it off. There’s nothing fake about her, and she’s funny at times. I feel very comfortable with her, and the feeling is mutual. In fact, in her last letter Gill says she loves my letters a lot, so much so that she re-reads them over and over. And she says they make her feel close to me. I can say the same thing about hers.”

Ginny’s visitor, knowing how hard put many of us are to find something to say to fill two or more hand-written pages, asked what she is telling Gill.

“Anything and everything. We write about our families, our flower gardens, our complaints – that’s how the English say our health issues. Sometimes we share recipes. Have you ever tasted sticky toffee pudding? Gill sent me that recipe and I can’t get enough of it. Delicious!”

“I’ve just done some math,” her visitor interrupted. “Let’s say your letters average four pages and you write about twelve a year. That’s forty-eight pages a year. Times that by forty-two years . . . Do you realize you’ve written 2,016 pages? That’s about six full-length books!”

“It is? Come to think of it, maybe if you put all the letters together they amount to my autobiography. Wow!”

She opens one of the two scrap books on the kitchen table to a page with photographs of the Riddicks. One shows Keith and Gill hand in hand, he with sandy hair and she a brunette. Both are smiling and full of life.

“Gill mailed me this shortly after they took Lee in. You know, that was a hard letter for Gill to write after Keith died of some blood disease. Maybe leukemia. I know how hard it was because I lost my husband, too.”

After a pause, Ginny continued, telling that the exchange of letters has now become more important than ever. “Gill, you see, is now house-bound. She needs a walker to get around. After her knee replacement, an infection set in, and she went back to hospital for more surgery. Then blood clots formed. That’s what killed her mother. In fact, twice Gill came close to dying. Our letters keep us connected, and all of us need connections, right? As she said in one of her letters, wherever you live the problems are the same. Writing, she said, gets us straight to our humanity and I agree! Maybe I got this from my mother, who kept every single card and letter that came in her mail, even love letters my father wrote when he was in the military. I especially like the cards she got when I was born.”

Another pause. Then, “I can’t help but feel sad about kids today who think they’re connecting by texting. They’re not. They use shortcuts and make up so-called words. I wonder if they know what a sentence is? When you write a letter you can take your time and think. You don’t want to dash off just a short note. And what you say in a letter can be cherished and kept and re-read forever.”

How well Ginny’s visitor understood the truth of her slant on things, for it was his letters sent to Gloucester, England, in 1976 that got the ball rolling and that eventually led to the lasting friendship of two unmet women.