Finding Friendship in Lockdown: How My 83-Year-Old Pen Pal Brought Me Comfort

When the first lockdown was announced in the UK early this year there was a lot of turmoil, to say the least. Many of us were living away from family and friends, some even didn’t have housemates to keep them company. I for one was very fortunate enough to live with four others, and I fully recognise that this made my experience a lot easier. But this company still didn’t stop me from feeling down, homesick and, at times, quite lonely. To tackle the loneliness that many people were feeling Lincoln College’s Development Office created a buddy system in which alumni were paired with current students, usually according to shared interests and career prospects. The aim was to boost morale and remind each other that despite being far apart, there was a Lincoln community that we could all tap into. It was a great idea and unsurprisingly lots of people signed up. Alongside a few other alumni, I was paired with an 83-year-old man called Christopher who had studied at Lincoln in the late 50s. From a brief description, it was nice to learn that despite going off to pursue different posts in many different countries, he remained well connected with the College always maintained a level of affection for it. 

Many of us were living away from family and friends, some even didn’t have housemates to keep them company.

Before Christopher, I hadn’t had much experience with pen pals. I remember having a Canadian penpal in primary school; a few months into Year 3, we exchanged a few postcards but sadly our correspondence petered out quite quickly. Other than that, I know that my grandad found a penpal when he was teaching in Tanzania in the 50s. Her name was Leilo and she lived in Germany with her son; she would send little gifts and photos of her and her son which my granddad kept until his death. They kept up their correspondence for years but sadly lost touch before his death. My grandma still has photos of Leilo in some of her vintage photo albums and now and again as a family we talk about her and wonder what happened to her. This penpal friendship, strengthened by letters and little keepsakes, made me think that it could be a special thing to have a penpal of my own one day. 

I have to admit that I was initially a little nervous about speaking to Christopher, not because I thought it would be a horrendous experience, but I didn’t know what to expect. Would we get on? Did we have any shared interests? Would we maintain contact throughout lockdown or would things just fizzle out? Regardless, I thought it would be worth giving someone a bit of company even if it was just writing a few emails here and there to check-in. It turns out that Christopher gave me much more than what I could offer him. 

With a bunch of work deadlines to meet and none of my family or friends in sight, I needed something, or rather someone wholesome in my life, and that was Christopher. He came at the right time and allowed me to see my situation in a new light. As was the case for everyone, I’m sure, my experience of the pandemic has been very up and down. At the start of lockdown, I felt productive; I kept myself as busy as I could and but there were (and still are!) many times when I felt very unmotivated and simply miserable. The homesickness kicked in now and again and at least a few times a day I would focus on what I was missing. I wondered what my loved ones were doing and how they were coping with it all.

Christopher’s ‘coronagreetings’, as he liked to call them, provided much-needed moments of relief from the sadness. What started off as small talk very quickly became long essays with updates, interests and several questions for each other! He would often send me photos of his walks, reminisce over his undergraduate days at Lincoln and talk about what he ended up doing once he graduated. In return, I looked forward to telling him about my research and receiving great book suggestions from him. Other times, we had more serious discussions and he provided a comforting presence and a listening ear during all of them. For someone I hadn’t even met in person, I grew to really value his wisdom and insights. Not only was he a friend, but also he quickly became a confidant. In such trying times he offered me hope, and in the midst of my loneliness, he gave me plenty of belly laughs. 

For someone I hadn’t even met in person, I grew to really value his wisdom and insights.

Now that we’re halfway through the second lockdown, I’m happy to say that my correspondence with Christopher is still going strong. When I receive his emails in my inbox instantly I feel excited! My self-confessed ‘Lincoln Grandfather’ still checks in on me; he offers me words of encouragement as I try to finish my DPhil this year and equally makes me feel incredibly lazy when he sends pictures of his most recent treks! We’ve never met in person and yet I feel so connected to him and his family. I enjoy hearing about how his children and grandchildren are doing, he still sends me extracts from the numerous projects that he juggles and I always come away from our discussions on current affairs with a more informed perspective. I look to his emails as a nice distraction from the stresses of my busy working day and he is a wonderful reminder that there are incredibly thoughtful people out there. I recognise that I’m lucky to have been given Christopher as a penpal and I’ll never take for granted what this great friendship has offered me. 

Not only has this experience made me very grateful for what I have but also it has made me think more deeply about connecting with others. Our correspondence has encouraged me to get back in touch with old school friends and to make more of an effort with my family who live further way. Now I try harder to maintain relationships virtually, often annoying loved ones with memes, little voice notes and fun pictures. It has been a great reminder to look out for those who are feeling isolated and to find creative ways of doing it. 

This has made me think more deeply about connecting with others.  

I’ll always be super thankful to Christopher for helping me to get through the best part of this terrible year and I hope that I too have offered him something special in such uncertain times. Of course, the pandemic isn’t over and it continues to be a really testing time for everyone. Personally, I’ve been reminded that I’m in a fortunate position compared to others and I shouldn’t lose sight of that. I’m appreciative of the small things, and one of those is the Lincoln buddy system. I have faith that beyond my DPhil Christopher and I will keep in touch and maybe once I’ve graduated I can offer the same kind of friendship to future Lincolnites. 

Image Credit: Spixey via flikr