A few weeks later, I got home from school and went next door to our neighbor's house. Miss Jean was an old crotchety lady who watched soap operas all afternoon and had a dog named Mac who would lick crumbs off of your fingers. She kept several kids in the neighborhood after school let out in the afternoons, until our parents could pick us up after work. When my mom called from next door to let Miss Jean know that she was home, we ran next door with our backpacks, happy to be out of the house next door where we weren't allowed to talk loudly or listen to the radio. When I got home, my mom handed me a letter that had come in the mail. The return address told me that it was from Laura Fisher who lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I tore open the letter, curious as to why it was addressed to me.
Laura wrote that she was 11 years old, and her family was Amish. Her father had found my balloon in his cornfield one morning, and brought it, with the note, back to her at the house. I read her letter, over and over, imagining her writing it by candlelight after a bath in a metal tub, filled with water heated over a fire. (I later learned that most Amish have gas lamps and running water). We wrote back and forth for about a year, and I learned more and more about Laura's Amish life. I responded to each letter and told her all about my new American Girl Doll, about my class's field trip to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and about general 4th grade life.
Laura's letters were often riddled with misspelled words and grammatical errors. I couldn't believe that an 11 year old could spell "together" wrong, or didn't know that when you were pluralizing something, you didn't have to put an apostrophe before the s.
In the last letter that I ever sent to her, I enclosed photo of myself. It was a tiny, wallet sized copy of my school photo. I can recall what I was wearing in that photo... it was a black velvet dress, and my mom had done my blonde hair in curls that morning. I never got a letter back from her. At the time, I wasn't that upset about it. I guess I just figured that we grew out of the letters. It didn't occur to me until much later that by me sending a photo of myself, it may have put her family in an uncomfortable situation. The Amish don't believe in taking photos of one another, because they think that by having a photograph of yourself, it's putting yourself up on a pedestal or may cultivate vanity. Once you begin to learn more about the Amish community, these things seem to make a lot of sense.
I'll never know if Laura Fisher stopped writing because I sent a photo of myself. Maybe it was harvest season and she became very busy. Maybe her parents intercepted my letter and never let her read it, so maybe she thinks my letter never came. Maybe her letter got lost, and she never really did stop writing. For whatever reason, I went about my life and didn't really realize how amazing and cool it was that I had an Amish penpal. I would do anything to have her back! I'm sure that by now, she is married and has a family and lives on her own farm. Two years ago, on October 2, 2006 (which happens to also be Em and my exact anniversary), tragedy struck Lancaster County, when a man opened fire in an Amish Schoolhouse, killing 5 young girls and wounding 5 others. One of the five victims of the shooting was 10 years old and named Barbie Fisher. I often wonder if she was somehow related to Laura- perhaps a sister, or a cousin.
I wonder if I sent up another balloon in April, where it would reach. I haven't tried it since I was 10, but I wonder if this one would get lost in the woods somewhere, or the note get drenched in the rain. (My first note was on a normal sheet of paper, rolled up like a scroll. I can't believe it didn't get wet). Maybe I'll try this again one day.