TueNight letter Jennifer Bensko Ha

A Friendship Kept Alive Through Letters

(Photo: Courtesy Jennifer Ha)

The first time I saw Jim, I immediately noticed his height. He was so tall that his head cleared the dark, dusty cabinets in the Schermerhorn building. Bright blue eyes, and long limbs, he had been an elite fencer and he moved quickly and energetically.

We were both in a beginning Finnish class at Columbia in the mid ’80s. It was a morning class, and the five of us in it would wait outside with our to-go coffees and make small talk.

After class, Jim and I walked to our dorms together, becoming friends slowly, but I really got to know him when he began writing me notes. He’d leave them under my door, or send them through campus mail. “Do you want to study later? Go for a walk? Get coffee?”

Back then, there really was no other way to reach someone other than by phone or by note. No Internet, no cell phones, no email, no social media. Telephones were wall mounted in hallways, so privacy was limited.

Sometimes I’d miss him, sometimes not, but we’d see each other in class, and sometimes we would make plans to study together or hang out. The discussions we had were usually about lofty intangibles, philosophical concepts, happiness, moral responsibility — or classwork.

For all his physical energy, Jim was a somewhat lazy student, and would often oversleep and miss class. On one occasion our teacher took him aside and scolded him: “A correspondence course this is not,” we all heard her say to him from her adjoining office. But he was brilliant, and that carried him through.

I seemed to stress about school more than he did. I was working a lot of hours in addition to going to class, and had very little spare time.

To: Jenny

Via: CU Local


Indecision, confusion, procrastination, despair, these are words that indeed have their time with us, and they stay too long. Too long! We must look to see what’s there plaguing us occasionally, but dwelling there among those words sinks us deeper into their world. Want to be happy? Happy is a direction as well as a place. If it is a direction that takes you to places you didn’t expect, why not? Maybe that way we can discover what-it-is-we-want. That is the direction that makes us happy: to go to what-it-is-we-want. Go toward that! There’s the ticket!

I looked forward to seeing his handwriting on envelopes addressed to me after a long day at work.

I began to get the feeling that Jim had feelings for me. I loved him dearly as a friend, but knew that romance would ruin it all. At the end of the semester we all packed up to go home for summer, and it was then that Jim and I really started writing letters to each other.

I was working in Florida and staying with my Dad. He was home with his Mom in Virginia. Long-distance phone calls were expensive then, so instead of talking, we wrote each other a few times a week, mostly about the minutiae of everyday life. I’d talk about the people I saw coming in to eat at the restaurant where I worked, he would respond to all that and add some anecdotes from his own world. I looked forward to seeing those envelopes addressed to me after a long day at work.

May 15, 1984

Dear Jenny,

Hi! Happy you! Here is my first letter sent through the mail. How does it feel to be one of the sunny smiled people? This is my last day in the First Half of the Life of James Pitt’s teeth. Today I’ll get all four wisdom teeth pulled out. I had thought like, pull two, then two years of school, then pull two. But no! They’re after giving me my dental-survival baccalaureate, and putting me through it all at once. Since they are violating my theory of method, I am letting them go all out and put me under, in the fashion of the majority of college students in getting their four years pulled. What does it matter if you’re ready? Lie down, relax, and breathe in. My jaw hurts for the first time in anxiety, don’t you think? Keep in mind that you are the last person to be written to before my life is torn apart by oral surgeons.

The following year, Jim moved to Berlin to study. He had met a beautiful German girl and eventually they moved in together.

Dear Jenny!

Hi dear! I haven’t sent a letter, but it is a-being-written! Soon there it will be. In two days I go to Paris with C. Berlin is still fantastic. The people I’ve met! I’m so in love with life! I love you and send hugs uncountable.

The next year, I went abroad to study in Finland and was able to travel to Berlin to visit Jim and his girlfriend. When Jim and I were alone together, he told me that he still cared about me, though he loved his girlfriend very much. I shut him down immediately. I was really confused;  I knew how much he loved his girlfriend, so I just didn’t get it. Later that day I heard him fighting with his girlfriend and gathered that he told her about our conversation. I left soon after, and really thought that our friendship was over. But more than a year later, I got a letter from him. He apologized. I was very happy to hear from him and felt sorry that I had not written sooner. I wrote back, and we started writing again. I graduated from college, and started working at Newsweek.

June 2, 1988

Dear Jenny,

Yesterday I sat down to write this letter in the kitchen… I will not go into deep analysis or reanalysis of my psychological development — to do so is a necessary weakness, but I do not wish to do it always. I want to get on with “it.” (Easier said than done, indeed!) [David] Byrne says make a clean break! How true, how truly difficult.

Jim wrote that he was ready to leave Europe and return to school. He visited New York that fall and began to make plans to return to study Comparative Literature at Columbia, and complete his degree.

October 9, 1988

Dear Jen!

Sorry I forgot to call before leaving NY, but everything was so hectic…Fall is here and it’s splendid. Scaled a little mount today, looked over the whole river valley. Saw some dino tracks on slate by river. Write soon!



While Jim made plans to return to the States, he was still studying in Berlin and working part-time for Pan Am. As an airline employee, he was able to jump on flights that had open seats. That December, he told me he was planning on coming to the U.S. to spend Christmas with his mom. He’d be flying through JFK, so he might stop off in New York, and if he did, should he come by for a quick visit? Of course.

I worked late on the Wednesday before Christmas, and heard immediately from coworkers that a Pan Am plane had gone down over Scotland. Although it wasn’t immediately clear, it sounded like the aircraft had exploded in midair over a small town called Lockerbie. When I arrived home that evening, it wasn’t long before the phone rang. It was my friend Peter, who was also a good friend of Jim’s. He was calling to tell me that Jim had been on that flight. My sister who was visiting for the holiday hugged me as I cried. My roommate’s knees collapsed beneath her.

I have thought of him often over the years, but reading the letters was too close, too painful. It’s only now, 26 years later, that I can look at some of the letters he wrote to me — and I’ve only been able to get through some of them. But as I took them out and read them, they made me remember the fun we had and made me think about what he would be doing now. His perspicacity at 20 was truly astounding: Want to be happy? Happiness is a direction, as well as a place. If it is a direction that takes you to places you didn’t expect, why not? Why not indeed? I thought to myself, have I really done that in my life?

When we were in college I had somehow ended up with a sweater of his that I wore until it fell off. Like the sweater, I used to despair that everything tangible of him was gone forever. Then I came to realize that his words — the letters that he wrote me — left something behind that has been a gift like no other. In his writing I still feel his friendship, and that was the best gift of all. When I read them, I clearly hear his voice, I remember his laugh, his smile, and know that the light that was inside him never really went away. And that maybe I loved him far more than I knew.

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7 Responses

  1. Ellen

    Oh, what a sucker punch I did not see coming! Those letters really are a gift.

    • Jennifer

      They are. I realized that too much had gone fuzzy in my mind. They are like a window into our lives and friendship.

  2. jessica

    that ending was unexpected.

    • Jennifer Ha

      Thank you, Jessica, and I know — it was one of those twists life sometimes gives you.

  3. besta essays

    I can relate to this story, but not exactly for me. but for my sister. My sister and I maintained a very good friendship when they were separated since they have to in different Universities. Indeed, these letters serve as their assurance that friendship wouldn’t be broken by just the distance among them. I love your blog! I can see myself holding my tears while reading this.

    • Jennifer Ha

      Thank you, besta essays for your comments. you are so kind. And your love and letters will keep you close!

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    […] Ha has kept a friendship alive through […]


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