Love letters: The gift of one woman to elderly

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Every afternoon after lunch, Mary Wehman sits down at a table in her sunroom with a roll of stamps and an address book and picks up a pen. For the next three hours she'll fill pages of cursive for some of her 51 pen pals. Living everywhere from Alaska to Florida, Maine to Texas, the letter recipients have diverse backgrounds. Wehman knows some of them, but many she's never met. All are elderly.

"The elderly are often so lonely," said Wehman, a longtime parishioner of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg. "This is a way for them to feel loved."

The 60-year-old's ambitious ministry of hand, heart and time began eight years ago, but its roots stretch back to a letter she received from her grandmother and an early and persistent desire to serve the less fortunate.

Going the distance

Wehman was born in Illinois and moved to Fredericksburg with her family when she was 12. After graduating from high school, she spent part of the summer working at a camp in Connecticut run by religious sisters for inner-city teenagers from the Bronx, N.Y. She was not much older than the campers, and it was intimidating at first. But the teens grew to love her, and by summer's end she told herself, "If you can do that, you can do more."

That impulse to do more spurred her to leave community college a few credits shy of graduation in order to volunteer at St. Joseph's Indian School in South Dakota, a boarding school for poor children from Indian reservations.

While at St. Joseph, Wehman saw a brochure about the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and an opportunity to serve in Alaska. JVC is an organization of lay volunteers who work with the poor, elderly, abused and other marginalized groups.

Her family was surprised when she told them she wanted to apply. "My dad said to me, 'You help a lot of people, but you're never going to make any money,'" she recalled, laughing.

Conquering fears in Alaska

When Wehman stepped off the airplane into the village of Emmonak, Alaska, no one was there to greet her. "I was scared to death," she said.

Yet over the next few years, Wehman grew to love the majestic beauty of Alaska, the poor Yup'ik Eskimos she worked with and the simplicity of village life.

Emmonak, the last village before the mouth of the Yukon River, had a population of about 500, nearly all Yup'ik.

Wehman and her JVC partner lived in a "shack-ish little building" that once was a convent. There was no running water, refrigerators or toilets.

Like everyone in Emmonak, she supplemented her diet by hunting willow ptarmigan, the Alaska state bird, and small animals. "I didn't like to hunt, but it's not like here where you can just go to the store," said Wehman, who learned to use a shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle.

During the two-year commitment, she taught religious education, visited the elderly and, with the help of the local priest, started a teen center.

They made a pingpong table for the center out of plywood and sawhorses, and Wehman's mother helped stock it with board games.

"The kids didn't need much to be satisfied," she said. "I loved the joy they felt over simple things."

Her time with the elderly similarly was fulfilling.

"They really appreciated those visits, and I appreciated being around them, hearing their stories."

Thoughts of her grandmother often came to mind while visiting the elderly. She saw her only once a year growing up, but Wehman cherished the many letters her grandmother had written her. She kept nearly every letter.

Though her work with the elderly and the young was deeply rewarding, life in Alaska could be dangerous.

The local priest once asked Wehman to join him on a snowmobile ride to a convent several miles away. Because she'd recently made the cold and at-times treacherous journey, she declined.

On his ride to visit the sisters, the priest fell through a sheet of ice. He survived, but "I would definitely have died if I'd gone with him," said Wehman. "It was a little miracle."

One of her toughest challenges as a volunteer was when her father died suddenly. The 21-year-old found out about his death via a shortwave radio owned by the priest. She was able to fly home for the funeral, but it was a painful time.

Her life's greatest heartbreak and blessings - her two sons - came following her JVC service.

Wehman had met a Yup'ik man whom she married and made a home with in Emmonak. Soon after the wedding, Wehman discovered he was an alcoholic who became abusive while drinking. The village, with all its positive attributes, had a high rate of alcoholism.

"He was a kind person, but once we got married I saw the other side," she said. "It was sad and scary."

After four years of marriage, Wehman found the strength to leave the abuse and return to Fredericksburg. She received an annulment and went to work raising two boys as a single parent. Sending her children to a Catholic school was a priority, and she lived in her mother's basement and cleaned houses in order to make that happen.

"It all worked out, but I'm not sure what I'd have done if not for my dear mother," said Wehman, who remarried about four years ago.

Sealed with a prayer

When her mother died eight years ago, Wehman's sadness brought back not only memories of her mother but also of her grandmother. "I recalled the request my grandmother made in her final letter: 'Don't forget me,'" recalled Wehman.

That appeal, along with remembering her time with the Alaskan elderly, inspired Wehman's letter-writing efforts.

One of her first letters was to a 98-year-old World War II veteran. She'd read a story about him in the newspaper, and she clipped out the article and sent it to him.

He later told her it was the nicest thing anyone had done for him.

"That put the spark into this effort," said Wehman, who continued to write to the man until he died.

Her 51 pen pals - she hopes to add more - include people she reads about and a few from St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church. She also writes to all of her mother's friends.

"I write to anyone I hear of who is lonely," said Wehman.

She calls them "pen pals," but she doesn't expect, or always receive, a response.

Many, however, have expressed how important the letters are to them. A woman from Alaska told her, "You'll never know how much you mean to me."

Sometimes she includes a holy card or newspaper clipping. Letters can be up to three pages; some are just a card with a note.

"I'll send this woman who had a stroke (and cannot write) a funny card rather than a long letter, because I don't want her to feel badly she can't answer me," said Wehman. "I just want her to smile."

Letter topics frequently are inspired by the seasons she observes changing through her sunroom's floor-to-ceiling windows. "I'll write, for example, about the birds singing a happy song of spring," she said.

The anticipation seniors experience waiting for the letters often is more important than the content, said Wehman, who prays for all her pen pals.

Wehman hopes her letter writing will inspire others to spend more time with grandparents or other elderly people in their lives - to compose a letter, make a phone call or just be present with them.

"The elderly have so much to teach us if we just take the time to listen," she said.

Every time she mails a letter she feels grateful knowing that its modest contents likely will bring joy. "I want them to know they are loved," said Wehman.

And she wants to assure them, with prayers and pen, that they are not forgotten.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015