This Sunday morning’s email pulled me into one of those magical moments that a benevolent Universe brings us every now and then, and I wanted to share it with you. I opened my email to find that a reader named Janine Seitz had used the contact form on my website to send me this message:
Hello, Susan Wittig Albert! I’ve read so many of your books over the years, but I had no idea I first enjoyed your storytelling back in 1964. A few weeks ago, while trolling the aisles in an antique store, I spotted a Calling All Girls magazine. I loved them when I was growing up and was thrilled to find it. I was flipping through and my heart jumped, literally, because I saw your story, “The Art of Christmas.” That story, and even the illustrations, struck a chord in my little 11-year-old heart back in 1964. And they still do! I thought the shadow box ornament display was such a perfect solution and a lovely way for two girls to bond and begin a friendship. I’m now 70 and re-reading “The Art of Christmas” was like finding a long, lost friend. I had a wonderful, joy-filled childhood packed with so many special moments. I wanted you to know that your story was one of them. And who says you can’t go back time?! Thank you for your stories then and now. All the best, Janine
Which prompted me to write:
Oh, for heaven’s sake, Janine—you’re making me cry! Just imagine the strands of chance and coincidence that brought that little piece back to you from the distant thickets of 1964: from my old Royal typewriter (carpal tunnel machine!) in the kitchen of a little house in small-town Illinois, where I was imagining that story, pregnant with my fourth and three-under-three under my feet.
I confess that I have no recollection of that little piece, but I think fondly of Calling All Girls, where a kind editor guided me through the mysteries of story-telling and helped me believe in myself as a writer—a full 60 years ago! And I am so deeply indebted to you for the reminder that stories can create memorable moments in our lives, and that (sometimes, when the Universe takes a hand) we can go back and read them over again. You have made me so happy.
To which Janine replied:
You are very welcome, Susan. Thank you for giving me a glimpse of the woman behind that story. Now it’s even more special to me. I don’t think anyone could write this story – too serendipitous to be believable. But we know better! Your lovely response has made this woman very happy, way up here in cold, snowy Vermont.
Yes, too serendipitous by half! Think of all the randomness that pulled Janine and me together via a magazine from sixty years ago. Sixty years!
If you’re of a certain age, perhaps you remember Calling All Girls, which was published monthly by Parents’ Magazine. It began under that name in 1941, was renamed Senior Prom in 1950, and then retitled Calling All Girls from 1955 -1966, when it became Young Miss. It was a welcoming venue for young writers, and its generous editor gave me–a young stay-at-home-mom with a growing family–a chance to learn how to write and submit to magazines.
I don’t remember writing “The Art of Christmas,” but judging from the date it was published, I know when and where it was written, and Janine’s note is a sudden wrinkle in time. Looking back, I see now that it was one of those brink-years, when I was standing on the cliff’s edge of change. That same year, my husband got a new job and we moved from Danville (IL) to Champaign. I decided to take a few English courses at the University of Illinois and ended up setting my fledgling writing career aside for college, grad school, and a university career. I didn’t return to it until the mid-1980s, when I began to write (among other things) some of the early Nancy Drew Case Files.
Janine has sent me scans of that 60-year-old story (I was never very good at saving old manuscripts) and I’ve posted the first page here: Art of Christmas (pdf). It’s the story of two girls who create a friendship as they work together to create something meaningful to each–and to both. A simple story that most young teens today would find outdated: no cell phones, no social media, no texting or sexting!
But I’m glad to be reminded and to reclaim it. Thank you, Janine. For me, our unlikely but entirely lovely internet connection is a reminder that stories do connect us. That we read and remember not just as individuals but as a community. That books can bridge time and space and difference. And that we are connected through story more deeply and in more ways than we can possibly know.