Are You the Friend I’m Looking For?


My guest this week is Jean Balser, a friend and writing colleague from Des Moines. She ponders the wisdom of rekindling lost friendships.


“Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other is gold.”                               ~ Girl Scout Song


writing to a friendI’ve always thought this was good advice, and am fortunate to number among my adult friends women I first met in grade school.

I correspond regularly with women I knew in New York more than forty years ago when we were all new mothers and far from our own families.  Back then we supported each other, baby sat each others’ children and cried with each other over our husbands’ affairs and subsequent divorces.  Now I enjoy seeing pictures of my friends’ grandchildren as much as I enjoy bragging about and sharing photos of my own beautiful granddaughter.

Recently I learned to play mah jongg and have met many fascinating women through the game; and when I married my husband eight years ago I acquired a whole new set of his friends.

But there is another adage that I wonder if perhaps I should also heed:  Let sleeping dogs lie.

Several years ago, I was reminded of a friend I’d had in Brooklyn. We’d lost contact when I moved back to Iowa some twenty years ago. With the miracles of Facebook and the Internet, I thought it would be fairly simple to find her.

After a bit of electronic sleuthing, I came up with an address for Mary Lynn Cordone (not her real name) in New York.  So I wrote her a chatty little missive: “Hi!  I don’t know if you are the person I am looking for but we lived in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn about twenty years ago.” I made sure to include my return address (but not my phone number.  If my inquiry fell into the wrong hands, I didn’t want some demented spinster calling me in the middle of the night.)

Off my letter went by snail mail to an unknown destiny.

Several weeks went by and then, nestled among the ads for hearing aids and requests for donations, was a plain white envelope with Mary Lynn’s return address and a tiny butterfly sticker in the upper left hand corner.

I opened the letter and began to read.

I was delighted to hear how she had spent some time in Florida but was glad to be back home in the City. I was pleased to learn that her daughter was happily married and living nearby.

Letters from Mary Lynn began arriving almost weekly and were filled with descriptions and photos of places I had loved in Cobble Hill.  The nearby park where my son Mikey and his best friend Alex skate boarded with their long blond hair blowing out behind them as they whizzed down sidewalks and leaped over curbs.  The Almontasser, my favorite Lebanese restaurant, where I had devoured lamb shish kabobs, green beans cooked with tomatoes and oregano, and Greek salads with feta and fresh herbs.

Her letters conjured up happy memories and brought me a certain sense of closure.  I had been so unhappy when I left New York that I couldn’t remember a time when I had enjoyed living in Brooklyn; Mary Lynn reminded me that it hadn’t all been bad.

And so we began to exchange our stories, explaining and describing the last twenty years of our lives.  I wrote about working as a caterer, about my family and about living in Iowa.  She shared her problems with her Tenants’ Association, along with her worries about her mother and about corrupt New York politicians.

Over time, however, her letters became bizarre.  She wrote that she was working on a “data base” and had proof that the US Government was stealing money from a secret trust fund, of the corruption in the Pentagon and of cover-ups and conspiracies by the Secret Service. She wrote of vague illnesses that confined her to her apartment.

I continued to correspond regularly but not as often; sometimes several weeks went by before I wrote back. Her letters also arrived at greater intervals and were more and more filled with angst.

Finally, I got the letter that made me question my decision to kindle our epistolary acquaintance in the first place.  In a letter to her after Mikey, Ann and Baby Sarah’s visit, I had had described how wonderful it had been to see my granddaughter and – well, I probably was a little too gushy.

“Dear Jean,” she replied in the briefest of notes.  “I hope you will forgive me but I just can’t read about your happy family right now.  Maybe sometime when I feel better.  Best to you and the professor.  MLC”

I have heard of schadenfreude, the taking of pleasure in another’s misfortune, but I’m not sure what to call distress at another’s happiness.

I have never broken up with a pen pal before, but I certainly don’t want to make anyone unhappy by my own satisfaction with life.  I guess I will just wait to see if she ever writes to me again.

In the meantime I’m thinking I should have let sleeping dogs lie and never written that note that began, “I don’t know if you’re the person I’m looking for….”


Jean Balser friendshipJean was raised on a farm in central Iowa and spent nearly twenty five years in New York before returning to her home in the Midwest.  She belongs to the Ankeny Writers’ Group and has been one of the editors of the last seven editions of the Iowa State Fair Cookbook.  She and her husband, a retired biology professor, are Drake basketball fans and Jean is an avid mah jongg player.  She can be reached at


  1. Fascinating story! I’ve had some sporadic epistolary friendships too, but none quite so strange as this one.
    A city can be a very lonely place.
    Thanks for the intriguing post., Mary and Jean The question you raised “hooked” me from the beginning!

  2. Fascinating story, Jean. We never know what’s going on in someone’s life, and the challenge is greater when the time and geographic distances are greater. I don’t think reaching out was a mistake – at the very least, you got a great story out of it.

  3. Like Shirley, I was hooked by the intriguing title today. “Distress at another’s happiness” would probably be called envy. And since your raised some psychological questions at the end, Jean, I’ll continue that train of thought: one possible explanation for Mary Lynn’s bizarre behavior may be dementia or some other mental disorder, which your observed but certainly didn’t cause.

    You may have regretting poking at this sleeping dog, but you entertained us with this instructive tale. Thank you, Jean and Mary.

  4. Frances Brent says

    My best friend from high school and I have stayed in touch for sixty plus years. We have kept these commminications in their myriad forms. Then we returned our young selves, our married selves, our new and not so new mother selves, our daughter selves, our professional selfs, our despairing and joyous selves, our widowed selves and our literary selves to each other. Our old selves faced our sometimes trivial and sometimes operatic pasts.

    Along the way we recapitulated the developing technology of the second half of the 20th century. I was the gadget prone one so began with my liile Olivetti and moved on to electric typewriter, early word processor, Radio Shack whatever, early Apple through the generations. My friend liked to talk, so I filled up shoe boxes of her tapes, listened to on the way to work. Social media isn’t her thing; a land based telephone leashed to a desk is. These last years belonged to our shared selves and memories. We will not meet up with them again.

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