Posted by: trevormeers | March 14, 2011

Letters From Florine

Publishing a magazine, blog or any other public work is a lot like dressing like a piñata and handing the world a stick. Imagine every thing you did at work today going before an audience of 4 million eager critics. “Doctors,” the old saying goes, “bury their mistakes; journalists publish theirs.”

You don’t work a keyboard very long before you develop a judo-like ability to absorb haymakers from every crackpot with a free e-mail account. I hadn’t even finished all my internships when my boss received a letter stating, “I hope someone is preparing right now to escort Mr. Meers to the unemployment line.” And that was over something I wrote in a how-to computer magazine. When my current magazine’s December issue comes out each year, I can plan on e-mail accusing me of both hating Christians and hating Jews. Usually in the same day. Publish a thinner issue because the advertising market slows down, and you get notes saying, “Are you out of ideas for what to put in the magazine? Here are some of mine.” When we carried an ad featuring Beyonce and her mom, a woman wrote to tell me she was banning the magazine from her home because her sons might use it as “a porn starter kit.”

So editors tend to approach our mailboxes with the head-ducking suspicion of a small dog who lives in an angry home where everyone wears heavy boots. Last week, I went to the mail slot and pulled out a letter addressed to me with a typewriter. The oversize envelope consisted of two regular envelopes clumsily taped together into one large monstrosity. The return label was one of those free stickers your insurance agent gives you, and it read “Florine Hollister, Sioux Falls, SD.” Short of serial-killer-style pasted letters, this package had every classic sign of trouble.

I opened the flap, eager to find out who I’d scandalized this month by suggesting that home cooks crease the edges of calzones with a fork instead of fingers. The letter began, “I just had this old typewriter, I bought in 1984, cleaned and a new ribbon put on it…. I am 89 and don’t have a computer, so making my letter with this request.”

“Here we go,” I thought and braced for the payload inevitably unleashed in paragraph #2. I get more angry mail from little old ladies than a crooked bingo parlor. At the sign of colored stationery with roses on it, my eyes start jerking in a nervous twitch.

Taped to Florine’s letter was a clip from our magazine inviting readers to submit photos to our photo contest via our website. Florine, it turned out, just received a photo from her cousin Norma in Arkansas, and it was just so good, she wrote, that she thought it really needed to be in our contest. And since Florine couldn’t get on the web, she figured this was the best way to go.

“I just am doing this on my own, and did not get her permission to submit this picture,” she wrote. “I do believe it is a good picture. You may think differently, but at least I’m trying.”

I flipped over the attached photo, printed on thin paper with a cheap inkjet printer and trimmed crookedly around the edges. On the back, Norma had written, “Mamma & Pappa Cardinal taken at my feeder.” The digital stamp in the corner showed she snapped it on the day after Christmas. The feeder looked like a cute little house, and Pappa had a berry tucked into his beak. Two metal poles ran straight down the center of the image, and Mama actually looked a lot more like a finch than a cardinal.

I turned back to Florine’s letter and saw another important detail she wanted me to know about Norma’s photo. “I would want her to have the credit.” Florine was melting my outer editor shell, but I kept reading.

There were a few more sheets in the big envelope. Florine had clipped a piece from our magazine about the lost art of writing letters. Inspired by our story, she decided to send me her granddaughter Grace’s school essay on the subject of “Virtuous Person Paper.” Florine said, “I share it with pride.”

I turned over Grace’s paper and saw that it was a salute to the character of Florine herself. Grace said Florine has lost a husband and two sons, had another son succumb to Alzheimer’s and has personally battled breast cancer three times. Grace said, “Whenever I am around her, her love just flows through me and warms me up like I’m drinking a cup of hot cocoa.”

Finishing the essay, I folded all the papers back into the way they came, then stuffed them into the envelope, wrestling them around the strange flaps left inside when Florine taped the whole thing together. I walked them over to the person running our photo contest and said, “Can you scan in this picture of a cardinal and put it into the contest on the website? It’s from Norma in Arkansas, but it came in from her cousin Florine. I want her to have the credit.”

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Responses

  1. You write so extremely well…can’t begin to imagine you’d get even one piece of critical mail (snail mail or otherwise)! I eagerly anticipate reading your blogs and your articles in MidWest Living… NEVER disappointed. Ignore the naysayers! Keep doing what you’re doing…most of us know it’s great writing!!

  2. You are killing me here… Did you write a personal letter back to her? Did her cousin win the contest??? Don’t make me wait until your next blog to hear the end of the story. I want to hear that Florine will be joining your family for a 4th of July picnic or something. What a sweet, sweet lady – the world needs more Florine 🙂 PS – what would be too crazy is if this simple lady was actually of Hollister clothing store fame and the “no computer” story was a ploy to get sympathy votes for the photo contest…

  3. Florine’s photo (er, make that Norma’s photo) just went into the photo contest, so no word yet on whether she’s won. But at least everybody around the office feels like they’ve been drinking hot cocoa.

  4. Neat article Trevor. Ya gotta love the rare positive mail. It is kind of like that in the insurance biz as well. It seems like you never hear from all the people you have helped and were happy with our service. Just those who we apparently did not give enough $ to!

  5. Gotcha! I’m pulling for her for sure 🙂

  6. I really liked this story! Keep up the good work!


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