My Grandma’s Penpal

Grandma died a week ago.

I was devastated. I knew about the cancer and that there wasn’t any hope at her age. Still, I didn’t want to believe it. She’d been the nicest person I’d ever known, and since mom had died, she’d taken care of me. It was all thanks to her that I was able to go to college.

Going through all those things she’d collected throughout her life was strange. It felt wrong to so simply decide what to keep and what to throw away. Yet, it was necessary. I couldn’t hope to keep all of it.

There was her collection of ceramic figurines, old photo albums of her and family, stacks of yellowed books, cheap paintings whose colors were flaking and just so much more. One day I as I went through another box of memories, I found one filled with stacks of letters.

As I looked through it, I noticed that they must decades old. They were of varying state. Some neatly tucked away, other’s seemed to have been crumbled up before. When I gave them a closer look, I saw that they were all sent by the same person, a woman named Elisabeth.

Reading through them gave me this warm and fuzzy feeling. Elisabeth sounded like such a nice person, and I was sure she’d been a close friend of grandma’s.

As I checked the dates on the letters, I saw that the last one had only arrived here recently, just a month shy of grandma’s death.

I teared up as I stared of what must be dozens, no hundreds of letters. What was in front of me was a testament to a lifelong friendship between two women.

It was in the middle of the afternoon when I started to read the very first letter.

The topics ranged from serious to mundane. In one Elisabeth gave advice on marriage and childbirth. In another, she talked about gardening and TV shows. As they got closer to the present day, they talked at length about the cancer that would ultimately be grandma’s demise. Elisabeth’s words never wavered and were filled with nothing but kindness and hope.

It was long past midnight when I put the last letter away. My decision had been long made. I was going to visit this Elisabeth, my grandma’s lifelong penpal.

I wrote down the address on one of the last letters and started my trip to the other end of the state.

I’d barely rang the doorbell when a tiny old lady almost half my size and about the age of my grandma opened the door.

She looked at me confused for a moment before she started to smile.

“You’re Margarete’s daughter? No, you’re too young, her granddaughter then, right?”

I opened my mouth and closed it again, not knowing what to say.

The tiny old lady in front of me chuckled.

“You’re her spitting image! You look exactly like her when she was your age. Come in, come in. What brings you here?”

I was at a momentary loss for words and instead of saying a thing I followed her inside.

“Well,” I finally started once we’d reached the living room, “I came to say thanks. For being such a good friend to grandma over the years and for all those letters you’ve sent.”

“Nothing to thank me for girl, it was the only thing I could do.”

“Because you were such good friends, right?”

At that, the old chuckled again, but this time it wasn’t merry, no it was nothing but wicked. When she stopped her face was a mask of spitefulness.

“Oh, you silly girl. Friends? Oh no, I wrote those letters out of spite!”

“Wait, what are you talking about?” I asked taken aback at this outburst.

“I did it to make her pay for what she did,” she almost spat at me.

“But those letters, they were all so nice.”

“Of course, that was their point! You see, little girl, Margarete and me grew up together. We were the closest of friends. But oh, how different we were. Your grandma was so smart and even prettier. Me, I was just a gray little mouse. She had it all, and I had nothing. At least until I met Stefan. I didn’t know why, but the moment he asked me out I was the happiest girl in the whole, wide world. I got pregnant, Stefan proposed and soon I was busy preparing for my wedding.”

For a moment she smiled, reminiscing, then her face grew dark again.

“But your grandma, she had to ruin it all! You want to know what she did? Well, the big day arrived, and Stefan didn’t turn up.”

“How is grandma related to” I started, was cut off instantly.

“Because it had been her! She couldn’t take it. For the first time, I had something she didn’t. I had a fiancé, soon a husband and even a family. She’d never had a serious relationship in her life! So instead she seduced my soon-to-be husband, slept with him, and he left me behind for her. Oh how I pleaded with him to come back. So many times I told him I’d forgive him, but he told me he’d been in love with her all his life. I’d been nothing but second choice! And now that he could have her…”

For a moment she broke up, her mouth quivering with anger and sadness.

“Now wait, my grandpa’s name isn’t Stefan,” I blurted out.

“Of course not! She was never really interested in him! It was just another one of her petite, little games. A few months later she’d left him behind like every other guy. To him though, it meant the world. He’d left his family behind, his reputation and me. There was nothing left for him. They found him a few days later, dead. I don’t remember much after that. They told me I had a breakdown, lost my mind as well as the child and was hospitalized for the better part of a year. And all that because of YOUR grandma.”

I took a deep breath and slumped down on a chair. This couldn’t be true. She was lying, wasn’t she?

“Why those letters though?”

And now Elisabeth started to smile. It could almost have been benevolent, if not for that little hint of mockery around the corners of her mouth.

“It was years later that she came back to me. She told me how sorry she was, that she knew I must hate her and detest her and blame her for what had happened. But you know what I did? I told her there was nothing to be sorry about. There was nothing to forgive, not a single thing. No, I told her all was fine in the world and gave her a bright smile. And you know why?”

I stayed quiet.

“Because she knew it was wrong. She knew it was a farce. What she wanted was closure, the truth, to move on and make good of the bad things she’d done. She cried and pleaded with me to admit it, but I hugged her. Oh, she got furious. She screamed and raged, and in return, I gave her nothing but kindness. She said she needed to hear it, but I never said a word. Instead, I told her, I’d be her friend forever. It was the last time I ever saw her in person. It was a month later that I sent her the first letter. I knew she was pregnant by now and was about to get married. So in this very first letter, I gave her a few tips on marriage, childbirth and about children. I’d read all those books, after all, I wrote so it would be a waste if no one would ever profit from it. Of course, these letters were full of sarcasm, and I am sure she must’ve noticed.

“Did she ever acknowledge you?” I asked in a low voice, still not convinced.

“Oh, but of course she did! I didn’t believe it myself at first! Hah! She pleaded and begged with me in it ‘Please Elisabeth, just say it, please’! Now wait for a second, you want to see for yourself what else your oh so nice grandma sent me?”

With that, she hurried away over to a cupboard and brought out a stack of letters of her own. For a moment she meticulously searched through them before she’d found one and brought it over to me.

I noticed grandma’s handwriting right away, but I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The letter was filled with such rage and profanities. Grandma called Elisabeth a terrible person, told her everything was her fault. That Stefan never wanted her and that she was happy that he child… I broke up at this point and couldn’t read anymore.

“This is terrible,” I was finally able to say after a while. “How could she…”

“Didn’t know this side of her, did you girl?”

I only shook my head, there was nothing to say. Then I started wondering about something.

“How did you keep this up for so long?”

When Elisabeth spoke again, it was with profound sadness in her voice.

“Like I said, there was nothing else. I couldn’t bear children due to the damage to my body. I tried dating men, but the trust issues were too bad. And with my mental history and drama adoption was out of the question. Without a family of my own, what else was there? Oh but I relished it, each letter, each profanity, each of her emotions made it all worth it.”

Her voice had changed once more. It was almost euphoric right now. She hurried over to her stack and brought over a letter from just a few months ago.

I was afraid it would be another string of profanities, but it was a last, sad and heartfelt plea by her.

She wrote again that she knew she’d ruined Elisabeth’s life back then. She had no idea why she’d done it. She was a dumb, young girl back then. All she wanted now was to hear from Elisabeth, her former best friend, that what she’d done was terrible. It was the last thing she wished for, to finally have closure. At least now Elisabeth could do it, couldn’t she? Now that the cancer was eating away at her body and mind.

I felt the tears coming to my eyes, but when I looked over at Elisabeth, the old lady was almost beaming.

“I wrote her the nicest, most empathetic letter I’d ever written. I told her that it was all my fault. That she’d been right to send all those bad letters. It had all been me and she, Margarete, wasn’t to blame for a thing.”

She started to cackle.

“Oh, I was her friend, I never wrote a bad word about her and never acknowledged what she did, never.”

I watched as the body of the sad, little creature in front of me started shaking with excitement.

“I’d never let her have it. I’d never give her the satisfaction to acknowledge what she’d done to me. She died never getting this one, last thing from me. And I know that this was what she hated the most.”