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.


  1. Elizabeth Verdick · March 29, 2010

    What a beautiful story. I wish I had a Kingsley in my life, I mean an unexpected friend. This piece of writing was a gift to me in a time of frustration. Thank you for that!


  2. herhimnbryn · March 30, 2010

    You are a wonderful weaver of words…


  3. Jennifer Bostwick Owens · April 1, 2010

    I love Kingsley, and I LOVE this story of generosity. Thank you!


  4. alison · April 2, 2010

    Thank you, herhimnbryn, although I wish you could see how Kingsley weaves his words. Elizabeth, I’m glad that this story came to you at the right time, and Jennifer, you are right – he is so deeply generous.

    In his most recent letter, Kingsley ended with this: “I’m getting on. More and more people offer me their seats on the subway.”

    Hard to believe that we’ve been friends now for probably 17 years.


  5. Alley · April 4, 2010

    I was searching to see if some metal gold-stamps that were labeled “Kingsley” contained lead, and I stumbled across your blog Beautiful story.


  6. alison · April 5, 2010

    Alley, what serendipity, not to mention that your name is also my nickname (spelled differently). And, from your website, the lemon-jade earrings I’m wearing look as if you could have made them. I love that the gift from your best friend got you going down this particular route.


  7. Tessa · July 29, 2012

    Love this story.


  8. Kate Kennedy · February 21, 2014

    Allie – Love the story. I am jealous of this penpal and wish I had a relationship like that too. Your writing is exceptional and I hear your voice in it, which is a gift to me.



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