BERKSON: Pen pal letters brought good news from France

Life Sketches

Pen pal letters brought
good news from France

Terry Berkson, who has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College, lives on a farm outside Richfield Springs. His articles have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine, Automobile and other publications.

For several years my friend Charlie ran an international pen pal business that he had inherited from his father. When I expressed some interest in the many countries people were writing from Charlie asked if I’d like a free subscription for my daughter and I accepted.

“You pick out the country and the pen pal,” Charlie said.

I’ve always been a Francophile so I chose France and a girl named Alessi Geoffrey. To my surprise my normally contrary teen-aged daughter, Elizabeth, went for the idea and almost immediately drafted a letter and even took it to the post office so that it would be sent out ASAP. In less than ten days a letter from Alessi arrived. To my worried surprise Alessi turned out to be a boy whose name if Americanized would be something like Jeff Alessi. I told my friend Charlie about the mix up and he responded with, “Don’t look at me. You’re the one who picked out the name.”

My daughter wasn’t disappointed that she had inadvertently written to a boy and after several correspondences Geoffrey invited Elizabeth to come to France. Being the responsible father of a fifteen-year-old girl I said to my daughter, “You tell Geoffrey that if he wants to see you he has to come to America!”

A little more than two weeks later plans for a visit from the Frenchman were almost entirely in place. He would be coming in August when my family is at the camp on Canadarago Lake near Richfield Springs. I didn’t mind having to meet his plane in Syracuse but when Elizabeth came down with a bug and had a fever of 102º, I found myself in charge of entertainment! When I vented to Charlie, he said, ”Don’t look at me. You’re the one who picked out the name.”

Pen pal Geoffrey Alessi is seen in this undated photo.20

The first thing Geoffrey said at the airport was, “My mother told me to tell you that I have a bad back and that I shouldn’t do anything strenuous.” So, the next day while Elizabeth was still with fever I took him water-skiing—and later fishing. He didn’t seem at home with either activity but he survived. What the kid was comfortable with was what I considered vulgar impersonations of the then very popular Michael Jackson. That, and repeatedly voicing the word “deescusting” when he didn’t like something, seemed to be a big part of the kid’s repertoire.

On another day, for want of something to do while Elizabeth was still recovering I took Geoffrey for a top-down ride in my roadster and stopped off for a unique lunch at the Jordanville monastery where we ate a vegetarian meal with the monks–in silence. Later, I asked the kid if he liked the food and predictably he came out with, “Deescusting!” followed by a Michael Jackson move. I felt like sending the kid back to France and again phoned my frustration to Charlie who of course said, “You picked the name.”

A few days later Elizabeth was better and to the Frenchman’s delight we were all headed for a week in Brooklyn. On the ride down to the city in the station wagon Geoffrey thought he was going to sit in the back seat with Liz but I had him sit up front with me. Being from Paris he seemed a lot more at home in a concrete maze than up in the country and was forever wanting to go for walks with Liz–to explore the neighborhood. I should mention that Charlie offered a free pen pal to my son Jonathan but he wasn’t interested. Still in charge of entertainment, I took the family to Coney Island where I put Geoffrey on the Cyclone, one of the roughest roller coasters in the world. After we hit the first almost 90-degree drop he was white-knuckled and petrified and started doing a breathing exercise that reminded me of a Lamaze class Alice and I took when she was pregnant with Liz.

When his two-week stay was up the kid flew back to France carrying rave reviews which resulted in a formal invitation from Geoffrey’s parents for Liz to visit them in Paris the following
summer. Somehow I overcame my protective posture and sent Liz off to France. She had a great time but was puzzled when the Alessis discretely placed an unopened bottle of Heinz catsup on the table at every meal which may have been a commentary on American cuisine. I felt proud to have given my daughter the experience of visiting another culture and country.

Now, more than a decade has passed and Liz has an American husband and lives in Tennessee with three very active little boys. Guess who’s getting married and wants
Liz to attend the wedding, in France! Geoffrey! And who’s going to baby sit the three little boys? My wife Alice! And who’s going to have to shop and cook for himself and do the dishes and make his own bed and mow the lawn and tend the chickens all by himself? Me.

I called Charlie to tell him about the latest pen pal development and he said, “No good deed goes unpunished. You’ve been complaining about that free subscription for years!”

“Who knew it would come to this?” I said.

“Glad you picked the name.”

One very big revelation that would have saved me a lot of worry back then, Geoffrey is marrying Kenneth.

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