What‘s this about?
Inside was a handwritten note along with a neatly clipped copy of my Cincinnati Reds season preview story from the Zanesville Times Recorder. I didn’t have to read far to get the gist.
This Mrs. Howard Richardson — she wasn’t happy with me. Not at all.
In beautiful cursive — the kind of handwriting you don’t see anymore — she pointedly took me to task for suggesting the Reds could be awful that season. I should be more positive, she insisted. It would help the players.
“You get more flies with honey than vinegar!!!!!” she wrote. (Yes, underlined and topped off with many exclamation points.)
The note was signed: Evelyn Richardson.
This was 2003, before social media had run amok. It took more than a few keystrokes on Facebook or Twitter to disparage someone for having a different opinion. Back then, you had to actually put some effort into berating someone. Which is why I didn’t get many such letters.
And why I didn’t usually answer them. Too much work.
This one was different, though.
I decided I couldn’t just ignore her. She seemed confused about my job. I explained that it’s not my place to promote the team, but to try to write about it objectively. I told her that I hoped for her sake the team would do well.
And then I came to one of those turning-point moments. Do I just defend myself and move on, or should I do something more? Do I try to get to know her? Am I willing to take the risk of making it personal?
Go for it.
“So, why do you love the Reds so much?” I wrote.
I licked the envelope, attached a stamp and mailed it off. Two weeks later, I got my reply: A handwritten account of how attending Reds games provided some of her favorite summer memories.
At midseason, the Reds were doing so badly that they fired their manager and general manager. (See!!!! My analysis was spot on.) Evelyn’s next letter started with: “Well, you were right!“
We went back and forth like that for eight years.
Every few weeks, another handwritten note would arrive with more newspaper clippings (she started calling herself my biggest fan) and updates on Evelyn’s life.
The signature on the last line evolved, from Evelyn Richardson to just Evelyn and then E ~.
We even talked on the phone a couple of times. She called excitedly when the newspaper published her letter to the editor. She noted that she was now a published writer, just like me! I told her I was her biggest fan. I called her on her 90th birthday.
There was one time when a few months passed before the next letter arrived. The handwriting was shaky. She’d had some dizzy spells. Passed out. Woke up in the emergency room. A great nephew named Tim was there. He’s an undertaker. She told him his services weren’t needed quite yet.
Oh, and what about those Reds? Will they ever win again?
In 2011, the letters stopped. I called her phone and left a message. Didn’t hear back. One of her great nieces got in contact with me. Evelyn wasn’t doing well. She was 93 years old when she died on May 10, 2011, at the hospital where she’d worked in the gift shop as a volunteer for many years.
I told the relative about Evelyn’s letters and her honey-and-vinegar line. They used it as part of her eulogy, I’m told. Everyone laughed. That was Evelyn.
At this time of year, we hear verses and songs about peace on Earth. With so much war and acrimony in every nook of the world and cyberspace, this notion of peace can sound pretty absurd.
Evelyn show me how peace works.
Not total peace, but important peace. Peace between people. The peace that comes from choosing honey over vinegar in how we relate to each other and talk to one another.
The peace that comes from writing a kind note every two weeks to someone you originally thought was against you, and getting an even kinder response two weeks later. The peace that disarms us when we actually take the risk to get to know each other.
The kind of peace that insists the next time someone flips us off or tells us on Twitter that we suck, we should just take a deep breath, think about how to respond and maybe reach out to them. Instead of venting, try understanding.
We won’t turn foes into friends every times, but sometimes. I learned that, letter by letter.
We can make peace. Postmark by postmark. It all depends on what we put in each envelope.