THE VILLAGES, Fla. — When Marjorie Martin checks her mailbox, cards and letters outnumber her bills at least 2-to-1.
That’s because The Villages resident corresponds with 70 pen pals from around the world, she said. And days without letters are rare.
“It’s nice to get a letter instead of a bill,” Martin said.
Each day, Martin sits down at her well-lit kitchen table and writes two to five letters to her pen pals. Some she hand writes; others she types on her computer.
Some pen pals she has been corresponding with for more than two decades; others, for far less time.
Two of them even share her full name.
But Martin has something in common with all 70: They love letters and sharing their lives through them.
Martin’s love affair with mail began when she was 9 years old.
One of six siblings, she fell ill with rheumatic fever on the last day of third grade.
For a year and half, Martin was on bed rest while her younger sisters went to school and camped with their Girl Scout troops.
Martin said she felt lonely at home all day, while her mother tended to the household chores.
But when Martin’s aunt began to write her letters, she finally had something to look forward to.
Martin loved getting updates from her aunt and knowing she was thinking of her, she said.
After she recovered, Martin was interested in having a pen pal, but didn’t know how to go about finding one.
In 1990, when Martin was much older and her two kids had left home as adults, she finally pursued pen pals.
She discovered a pen pal magazine and sent in a short summary about herself, asking for pen pals.
The piece was published while Martin was on vacation, but what was waiting for her upon her return astounded her: 300 letters.
Martin responded to every single one.
Twenty-three years later, Martin has whittled down her list to keep up with 70 pen pals in 11 countries and 34 U.S. states.
Martin and her pen pals exchange updates both on the mundane, such as mowing the lawn, and the sentimental, like a momentous occasion or the loss of a husband.
One of Martin’s pen pals, who lives in Kent, England, included a picture from her grandson’s graduation in her most recent letter.
“I’ve been writing to her since he was a tiny tot,” Martin said.
The friendships between Martin and her pen pals are just like any others.
They listen to each other as they pour their hearts out on paper, and pray for each other during trying times.
When Martin’s parents died within five weeks of each other, she received a prayer shawl and dozens of condolence cards from her pen pals.
Last year, Marjorie and her husband, Don, moved to The Villages from Michigan by car and left several boxes at their other home.
A pen pal who lived a couple hours away from them in Michigan picked up a few boxes and delivered them to the Martins in their home in Florida on her way to visit a relative.
“That’s how caring and thoughtful pen pals are,” Marjorie said. “They’re a unique group.”
Marjorie has met several of her pen pals in person. They’ve attended pen pal picnics and even have stayed at each others’ homes.
But there never has been an awkward moment meeting a pen pal, she said. Marjorie already knows a pen pal’s personality through her letters.
When Marjorie met a pen pal in Washington state after writing to her for three years, the connection was natural.
“We hugged, and we just picked up where our letters left off,” she said. “It would be like you meeting a relative who lives far from you.”
Marjorie said she has developed very strong bonds with some of her pen pals.
“There’s some you put at the top of the pile, and you write to immediately when you get their letter,” she said.
Marjorie even has corresponded with pen pals until their death.
When two of her pen pals died, their husbands wrote to thank Marjorie for her commitment to writing.
“One husband said that (his wife) looked forward to my letters, and I ended up being her only pen pal in the end,” she said. “It really made me feel like maybe I made a difference in her life.”
How did Marjorie become so close with people merely through the written word?
When people converse on the phone or in person, they are more apt to think about how they want to respond instead of listen to what is being said, Marjorie said.
But in letters, the recipient concentrates on what they read, and then what they write.
“We’ve become dear friends,” she said of many of her pen pals. “We actually will call each other once in a great while, but we still prefer the letters.”
Marjorie said she has no idea how much she has spent in postage over the years.
But she figures the post office needs the money, since they’ve lost so much mail correspondence because of the Internet, she said.
And Marjorie has no plans to stop giving business to the U.S. Postal Service.
Her devotion raises the question: Will she be a pen pal for life?
“As long as I can,” Marjorie said. “Or as long as my memory and hands hold out.”