The only penpal she ever kept writing to

chinese-dumplingsLast week, in the church for the non-churchy, the minister, after talking about unexpected gifts, asked everyone to turn to a stranger and give that stranger an unexpected gift. The gift could be a handshake, or a wish, or a something. An anything.

She didn’t much want to give an unexpected gift, because she didn’t feel like talking to anyone she didn’t know – she is one of those under-the-radar members of the church for the non-churchy, and all she really wanted to do was sing and recite the ending prayer – whether it can be called a prayer, in this particular church, is debatable, but that’s what she calls it anyway – and leave and walk the two blocks home to make corn pancakes for the still-sleeping occupants of her house.

But the man at the far end of the aisle was smiling nervously, and she realized that maybe he didn’t want to give or receive an unexpected gift either, which somehow made it okay.

She considered making up a free verse poem for him on the spot, perhaps about his salt and pepper beard or green cardigan, and reciting it. No. She considered giving him a simple handshake. No. She considered giving him a kind statement, such as, “I didn’t want to give an unexpected gift, because I didn’t want to talk to anyone, but you have such a nice smile that I changed my mind. My gift to you is this nice smile in return.”

No. Ugh.

Then she knew what she would give the man. She reached into her bag, into the side compartment, and pulled out a gold coinlike object with the Chinese character for luck stamped into it. She slid down to the far end of the aisle and pressed it into the man’s hand.

“My unexpected gift to you is this 24-carat gold good luck stamp. My friend Kingsley gave it to me years ago. Now it’s yours.”

The man at the end of the aisle smiled that nervous smile and said, “I’m not good at this. I don’t really have anything to give.”

She took his nervous honesty as an unexpected gift in itself and shook his hand.

Kingsley, the friend who had given her the gold good luck stamp, had been another unexpected gift, many years ago. In a time of great frustration because no matter how many times she sent her stories out, no one wanted to publish them, she had taken to copying them herself, at Kinko’s, and folding the pages over and stapling them and leaving them here and there in coffeeshops and laundromats.

One of these stories had made its way to New York City, where an older Chinese-American man found it and read it. She had included her P.O. box on the folded and stapled story, and he wrote to her there.

That first letter, so long ago – seventeen years now? – had been typed on a manual typewriter that could have used a new ribbon. It was a short letter, explaining that he had read her story, and that he himself had once visited an uncle in the country who raised chickens. (The girl in her story had a flock of psychotic chickens.)

He had included his name – Kingsley – and his address in Queens.

She wrote him back, thanking him for his letter. He wrote back right away.

And thus began the friendship between her and Kingsley. For many years it was letters only, a penpal relationship, between her in Minneapolis and Kingsley in Queens, a man old enough to be her father. She had lived in many apartments and houses in her life. He lived in the house he had been born and raised in, and where he had cared for his father and his mother until their deaths.

The letters became expansive and elaborate. They remain that way to this day.

Kingsley makes his own envelopes out of magazine pictures that he thinks might interest or amuse her. He pieces together the correct postage out of stamps from a collection which strikes her as vast, spanning many decades of postage.

Kingsley reads several newspapers a day and an average of two mystery novels a week. As he reads, he keeps a pair of scissors on the table next to him, and clips out articles and cartoons that he thinks she might appreciate and includes them in the large, handmade envelopes.

Something she knows about him that he did not tell her, but someone close to him did: He tape-records, from the radio, winter and summer weather reports. On the hottest summer nights he goes into his backyard (Kingsley does not have air conditioning) and lies on the grass and listens to a winter weather report. And on the coldest winter nights (Kingsley does not like cold), he closes his eyes and listens to a summer weather report.

Twice a week or so Kingsley takes a series of subways from his home in Queens to Chinatown. He always carries a backpack, and in the backpack, always, is a selection of Tupperware containers of various sizes. He eats lunch at one of his favorite Chinatown restaurants and packs the leftovers into his Tupperware to bring home, enough to feed him for the next day or so.

A camera is always in the backpack, too, so that Kingsley can photograph the meals at the banquets he arranges for his cousin and friends in his favorite Chinatown restaurants. Each of the many courses is photographed, labeled in his block printing on neatly scissored rectangles of Post-It notes, and affixed to the photos, which he includes in the large homemade envelopes with their colorful stamps.

For many years he sent her a box of rich red bean cakes every year in the fall, at the time of the Autumn Moon Festival. She and the occupants of her house love red bean cakes and looked forward to them every year. Then, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Chinatown bakery that Kingsley always bought them at folded from lack of business, and the red bean cakes were no more.

So many things he has sent her over these many years:

Ginger honey crystals, to dissolve in warm water, when she catches cold or has a sore throat.

Candied ginger, a treat because he knows how much she loves ginger in all forms.

Thin, extremely gingery cookies, ten in a pack, ten packs in a small box, mailed to her at regular intervals because she told him she has searched her city for them and cannot find them.

Silk Chinese dresses far too small for her, that had belonged to his mother.

Cotton t-shirts for her children.

An antique Chinese lock.

Tapes of radio shows that he has particularly enjoyed.

Books, usually with a Chinese theme.

Recipes for her favorite Chinese foods, often accompanied by the ingredients to make them.

Once, years ago, a telephone calling card fell out of one of the packed envelopes. She didn’t use it because she’s not a phone person and she didn’t have his phone number. One day, on a whim, she looked it up online. There it was, Kingsley, in Queens.

She calls him now if she’s going to be in the city. They meet for lunch or dinner in Chinatown. Once, he was there with his cousin and two of his cousin’s friends. It was a meal of several courses, pre-arranged by Kingsley, and before the end of it she slipped away so as to pay the bill secretly.

All these years, and he had always paid. All these years, and all the many and varied boxes of treasure he had sent her. But when she returned to the table, Kingsley knew what she had done. He could not look at her, so great was his embarrassment. She, wanting to do something nice for him, had ended up hurting him.

When one of the large and beautiful envelopes arrives now, she writes to him within a week or so, instead of the longer lag time that used to be her routine. Life is precious and too short, and she wants Kingsley to know that she loves him, and that she treasures their friendship.

When she writes to him, often with pen on lined notebook paper, she thinks of the forty years she  wrote to her grandmother, hundreds and hundreds of letters, none of which she threw out, one of which she pulls out at random if she is having a day in which she misses her grandmother particularly badly.

Long ago Kingsley sent her a rubber-banded old cardboard box containing jewelry so shiny gold that she, being ignorant, assumed it was the sort that she would buy for her daughters in the toy aisle. Later, when she found out it was not costume jewelry, she wrote to Kingsley, to tell him it was too valuable for her to keep. It was my mother’s, he wrote back, and I want you to have it for yourself and your daughters.

Among the jewelry was a gold coinlike object, stamped with the Chinese character for luck. May it bring the man at the far end of the aisle good luck, she thinks now. Good luck like the kind that came unexpectedly her way so many years ago, when Kingsley entered her life.

March 14, 1935

alison-on-dads-lap1There are many men in the world celebrating a birthday today, millions and millions of them. There aren’t that many birthdays to choose from, when you think about it – only 365 possibilities, and we all have to share them.

We focus in on the man in the photo up there, the one wearing the plaid shirt and the white socks, the one holding the fat cross-eyed baby, his firstborn, on his lap.

Happy birthday, man in the plaid shirt. You might be wearing one today, although I don’t know that for sure. When I picture you, I picture you in tan polyester pants with a stain on the front, and a short-sleeved plaid cotton/poly blend shirt. Large brown tie shoes.  Black socks. A zip-up jacket.

Where are you now? In the 35-year-old new room, maybe, perched on a chair ludicrously small for your large frame, playing computer solitaire.

Looking for your wallet, which you will find, after searching the kitchen, the dining room, the new room and the living room, on the mantel above the fireplace.

Putting a hat on and heading out to your car, which will be unlocked, with the keys in the ignition, to drive five miles to the diner, where you will meet your cronies for breakfast, a 30-year and counting ritual.

Stooping down to rough up the fur of your dog, or, more likely, sitting in your recliner and calling her to you so that you can manhandle her large bulk into your lap and rock her.

Making your way down to the  vast woodpile and chopping some more logs into woodstove-size chunks.

You are the man who took his children on a two-week road trip every summer, road trips that, over the years, came to encompass nearly every battlefield and fort in the eastern  states, north to south and back again, who who came out of the gas stations – back when you paid for your gas inside at the counter – with his hands full of candy bars, one for each child.

Who sat for hours with your parents after the massive meal had been eaten, catching up on all the latest news. Who, not young yourself, bent to the floor and picked your mother up in a single motion after she fell leaving that one restaurant.

You are the one who short-sheeted your sergeant’s bed in basic training, and slipped the dead fish between his covers. You are the one who hung the tire from the butternut tree, who stayed up all Christmas Eve putting together the race track, who makes the stuffing at Thanksgiving.

You are the one so tough and uncomplaining that the doctors didn’t believe you were in any real pain even though your appendix had burst 24 hours prior, the one who had to lie down on the floor of the doctor’s office to  make them believe you.

You are the one who drives your fearful rural friends to Yankee Stadium every summer, who books the cheap motel where you all cram into a single room, and you are the one who tells the stories afterward.

You are the one who puts your campaign sign on the front lawn, opposite your wife’s opposing-party campaign sign.

You are the one with the big frame and the big station wagon who wore the flame-orange polyester shirt to Parents’ Weekend at your firstborn’s exclusive upper-class college in the mountains, your giant voice roaring with laughter; the one that all your firstborns’ friends gravitated to.

You are the one who drives the old people and the young unable people and the people without cars or friends to their doctors’ appointments.

You are the one who wept when your father died: the first and only time your children saw you cry.

You are the one who called your firstborn on her 33rd birthday and told her you loved her on the answering machine tape, back when there were still answering machine tapes, and she yanked it out of the machine and put it away in a drawer, where it has accompanied her to every one of the six apartments and houses she has lived in since.

Happy birthday.

Join us for a one-day creative writing workshop!

typewriter-have-a-wonderful-dayDo you want to jumpstart your writing? Try a different approach? Lift yourself out of your rut (not that I’m assuming you’re in one)?

Fellow writer Brad Zellar and I will be teaching two one-afternoon creative writing workshops in Northfield, MN on Saturday, April 10.  We’d love to see you there. Here are the details.

Workshop #1: Writing from Place
Date and Time: Saturday, April 10, 1-5 p.m.
Location: Northfield Public Library, Division Street, Northfield, MN
Cost: $50 (includes all materials)

Recall some of your favorite books. What part did the setting and landscape play in making these books unforgettable? Is there a place in your own life that haunts you, that is inextricably bound with your memories and the experiences that made you who you are? All writing, no matter the subject or genre, is made more powerful by a powerfully-evoked setting. This oneday intensive class will help you conjure places of great meaning to you, whether beautiful or ugly, real or imagined, and translate that power onto the page.

Through a series of guided writing exercises, discussion, and analysis of both published and peer writing, you’ll come away with insights and techniques for conjuring place, whether from your own life or a fictive world. This workshop is designed for writers of fiction, memoir, poetry and essays. Open to anyone, all experience levels welcome.

Brad Zellar, a writer, editor, photographer, and former bookstore owner, is the recipient of a 2010 Minnesota State Arts Board grant. His journalism, fiction, poetry and photography have been published in a variety of newspapers, magazines, journals, and anthologies. He is the recipient of awards from The Society of Professional Journalists, The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and the Minnesota Magazine Association. Zellar is the author of “Suburban World: The Norling Photos” (Borealis Press, 2008), which the Coen brothers used as a primary setting reference for their most recent movie, A Serious Man.

Workshop #2: The Order in Which It’s Told
Date and Time: Saturday, April 10, 1-5 p.m.
Location: Northfield Arts Guild, 304 Division Street, Northfield, MN
Cost: $50 (includes all materials)

Our clocks and calendars say we live our lives in a linear fashion, but certainly not our hearts and minds. How can you use different chronologies to create the strongest possible story? A story told from the point of view of an eighty-year old man recollecting his twelfth birthday could begin in the middle of the birthday, then flash forward sixty-eight years. Or, it might start on the old man’s deathbed and work backward. An entirely different tone will be set in the story, depending on where in time the writer places the narrative and emotional emphasis.

Through writing exercises, published examples, and discussion, we’ll work with the role of chronology in structuring a piece of creative writing. This workshop helps writers clarify how they want to use time, and the sequencing of key events in their prose writing.

Alison McGhee is a #1 New York Times bestselling writer and Pulitzer prize nominee who writes novels, essays, picture books and poems for all ages. She is the recipient of many awards, including four Minnesota Book Awards, a Best Books for Young Adults award, and three Booksense 76 picks. She is also a professor of creative writing at Metropolitan State University.

To register for either class, please email me at Each class limited to 15.