They're friends, letter for letter

Quilt started an ageless bond between bird-loving pen pals

August 09, 2002|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

The unlikely friendship began with a red and white quilt, sewn in a diamond and square pattern.

Katina Nicoloudakis, 11, was half awake, groggy from an operation to lengthen her leg in May when someone at Sinai Hospital handed her the blanket and she snuggled it close.

Back home in Charleston, W.Va., when she examined it, she saw it had been made by Dorothy Purcell of Kingsville and decided to write the woman a thank-you note. Everyone who had come into her room admired it, she wrote, and now she slept with it at night.

Dorothy noted with interest the ducks Katina had drawn at the bottom of her letter. In response, she told the girl about herself. What she said took Katina by surprise. "She is a lot like me," the girl thought.

Like Dorothy, Katina loved birds, and in her letter back, she named all those she had seen from her window.

"I guess now you're sort of like a pen pal," Katina concluded. And on the page, she sketched a peacock.

The peacock inspired a hand-written, six-page response from Dorothy. As it turned out, she and her husband, Bob, had been sitting on their deck a few days after reading Katina's letter when, she wrote, "you'll never guess what came strolling through -- a beautiful male peacock!"

The coincidence prompted Dorothy to ask the girl to draw her a frog. There had been a frog in Dorothy's pond last year, but it had disappeared. Maybe Katina's sketch would bring the frog home.

And so their letters went, with Dorothy recounting tales of nature in her back yard and Katina sending sketches of birds she had seen from the window where she sat as she recuperated from surgery.

Katina had imagined Dorothy, 70, "was going to be one of those old people who sit around and quilt all day." Instead, "she turned out to be pretty cool."

She began telling the older woman more about herself, her three siblings, her fear of entering middle school in the fall. There was also the disappointing reality that she would have a cast on her leg during soccer tryouts.

With each letter, she drew a new bird or duck.

Every five days, one or the other received a letter, until, suddenly, in early July, with no notice, a week passed, and then 10 days without word from Katina. Dorothy was sure the young girl had realized she was corresponding with an old lady and decided to stop.

She sent Katina a picture of herself hand-feeding hummingbirds last winter. There was a funny story with it, too, about how for weeks in the icy winter she had stuck her hand out the window, offering food to the birds, to no avail. Finally, one day her husband came home and she said, here, you try it. He did, and the birds landed and ate from his hand. "I could have killed him [not really]," she wrote.

Katina, who was on vacation at the beach with her family, was surprised that Dorothy noticed the letters had stopped. She expressed delight over the hummingbird -- for years she has been hoping to spot a hummingbird nest -- and drew her friend a cartoon about a lightning bug.

Now Dorothy worried about how to keep up with her pen pal; her hands hurt terribly from arthritis. Her first computer-written letter took two hours.

Still, she wrote, "It is much easier typing than writing ... and I need my hands for making blankets, right?" In that letter, she also asked Katina to let her know the next time she would be in Baltimore so the pen pals could meet.

Katina understood how hard it was to learn the computer. It had taken her two hours to type a social studies report. It paid off with a first-place ribbon, though. And, she told Dorothy,

she would be in Baltimore on Monday.

The pen pals met for the first time this week at Sinai.

When Katina's dad wheeled her in, Dorothy tapped the quilt covering the girl's knees and gave her a hug. Together they pored over the photo album Dorothy brought of creatures in her yard, including the visiting peacock.

"Gosh, you get all the good ones, don't you?" Katina said, seeing a picture of a flying squirrel.

In the girl's sketch book, Dorothy admired colorful renditions of the common hawk, a flamingo, a cardinal and a wood duck. "Keep up the good work," she told her.

Katina got to gripe about her leg brace, a "fixator" that holds her bone in place with pins, about everybody asking if it hurts (no, but it itches) and the "gross body fluid" that sometimes leaks out. Dorothy promised not to tell the doctor Katina had played in the sand and kicked a soccer ball.

Then Dorothy gave Katina a large tote bag she'd made her from recycled jeans. On one side was Katina's name; on the other, a mallard duck. "How did you do that?" an astonished Katina asked.

Each also brought something else to their meeting: the other's letters, protected by plastic sleeves. And after a while, Dorothy let it be known she hoped the letters would continue, at least into Katina's high school years. It was Katina, she pointed out, who decided they should be pen pals.

Katina had always wanted a pen pal. She'd discussed the subject in Girl Scouts. But how would she get one? She couldn't imagine picking a name out of the blue and mailing a letter to someone in Japan. Then, this happened, and she thought, whoa, that's pretty easy.

A young pen pal was the last thing Dorothy expected from the blankets she made for Project Linus. Most of the 200 quilts she'd made for hospitalized children had been acknowledged by their parents.

But she knew a friend when she saw one. And she knew friendship is nurtured by gifts. A quilt, a peacock. A peacock, a frog. A frog, a hummingbird. A hummingbird, a cartoon. Support, advice. Sympathy, compassion. On and on, one and then the other.

"Old, young," Katina said as they visited. "What's the difference?"

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