I used to have this penpal named Erin. She was more than a penpal; she was one of my first best friends. We met at a music camp in Michigan (yes, I’m a band camp girl) while she was living in Ann Arbor, and I was living in northern Illinois. My dad loved that I went to that camp because it was a fairly prestigious band camp, but I got several discounts, one for being out of state, and another for playing cello. I guess they never had enough cellists.
I met Erin on the second or so day. We were attending the junior section of Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, called Camp Bernstein (after Leonard Bernstein). We’d auditioned to be seated in concert seating, which we would only use for concerts. The rest of the time we rotated seats so that last chair could see what it was like to sit first chair and so on.
I ended up second chair cello, next to some punk named Cody, who made my life hell that year and the next, and Erin made first chair viola. She was good. Because we were a small orchestra, we ended up sitting next to each other. As we looked around at who we were sitting near, Erin turned to me and said, “Are you Lithuanian? You have Lithuanian eyes.”
Since I was was only about twelve at this point, I was fairly weirded out by this question. Part of it was because it was a question completely out of left field, and the other part is I hadn’t yet met someone my age who even knew Lithuania existed, let alone traced her ancestry to that country.
Plus I’d never thought about how my eyes reflected my Lithuanian ancestry. And I still don’t know what about them looks “Lithuanian.”
So I said yes, and later told her that my ancestors had fled the pogroms that the Lithuanians were started to institute against the Jews, and that my ancestors arrived on Ellis Island in the first decade of the 20th century. I don’t believe her relatives were Jewish, just a mix of German and Lithuanian.
We became inseparable from that moment on and tried to do everything together. It was easy the first year since we were both attending Camp Bernstein, but the second year it was a little harder since she had made it into the main camp’s symphony orchestra (I told you she was good), and I was stuck in the lesser-talented concert orchestra. So was Cody, who continued to make my life hell, especially after I landed a higher chair than he did.
But once we got to main camp, Erin and I were in the same cabin. I loved that cabin — it was actually split into three “cabins” or groups of girls who had their own counselors. Circe I had a separate room, even, and the rest of us didn’t associate with them much. Circe II and III shared counselors and a large open-bay room. Erin took the top bunk, and I had the lower bunk, and our groups were housed in the only cabin in the camp which had an indoor bathroom. Everyone else shared a bathhouse.
Even after that summer, which was the last year for both of us, we kept in touch. Letters arrived from her at least once a week, and it tapered off to once a month once she moved to Germany. I noticed the German influence in her handwriting and really admired it, but I never could form my letters the way she did. She even sent me a calligraphy pen from Germany as a gift one year.
And for some reason, I have remembered one particular afternoon that I spent writing to her. It was a summer day in northern Illinois, and I had just gotten a new prescription to my glasses, letting me see even the smallest details with the greatest clarity. The sun was bright, the breeze was warm, and there was not a cloud in the sky. I laid out in my father’s hammock in the backyard and enjoyed the sounds of the little kids playing in their backyards as I wrote Erin a letter. I know I wrote to her about the beauty of the willow trees in my backyard, the smell of the freshly mown lawn, the screams and giggles of our youngest neighbors. I can see even now the bowing willow branches with their bright green leaves swaying in the gentle breeze, feel the heat of the sun on my skin, and hear the sounds of a vibrant and living neighborhood.
Later she wrote me back saying she admired my description of that day, telling me I really had a flair for writing and that I really should write more.
Erin came back to the States after a few years in Germany, but once we started into our last few years in high school the letters started to taper off until they finally stopped. Now I don’t know where she is or what vocation in life she’s chosen, and I’m a little sad about that. She was a great friend to me, even with the distance separating us for these many years.
Maybe one day our paths will cross again.