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COLUMN: Finding a pandemic gift

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Pandemic gift

Jan Dolph, left, and Loretta on vacation in 1993.

Jan Dolph was cleaning out drawers when she spied the letter.

Like many of us, Jan has spent the pandemic doing her day job from home and spending her free time tackling the stuff we normally don’t spare time for, such as organizing kitchen drawers.

Most people are familiar with that one drawer … not quite the junk drawer with pencil stubs, grocery receipts and twist ties, but the one holding ready-at-hand greeting cards, extra envelopes and, when we’re lucky, stamps.

There was the letter, now more than two decades old and never read again, containing the words that changed everything.

It had been hidden away for good reason, and Jan considered throwing it out for good. She read it again, instead, knowing it could knife open her heart once more.

This time the words seemed completely different, so much so Jan wasn’t sure it was the same letter she’d tucked out of sight so long ago.

The envelope had arrived from her best friend, Loretta, at the lowest of low points in Jan’s life.

The two had been close forever. They grew up in Spokane, one grade apart, then roomed together at Walla Walla College, now Walla Walla University.

After graduation, the friendship continued to flourish. Loretta went to Boston to finish her degree, and Jan made sure to stay in frequent touch. When Loretta moved to the Seattle area, she and Jan would fax photos and notes back and forth. Because it was the 1980s, after all.

At age 22, Jan had married Cliff Dolph, whom she’d met at WWC.

The Dolphs returned to this area when Cliff got a job teaching English at his alma mater.

They started trying for a baby, but as time went by, it looked like that might not happen. One doctor advised Jan and Cliff to put the idea aside.

Loretta was also going through transitions. She was getting married, and Jan was the matron of honor of what should have been a festive time.

For some reason, it became an oddly tense time, Jan recalled.

“Probably because our relationship would be changing.”

The fertility issues muddled everything, covering Jan’s world with a gray fog.

Even as her friend got married, Jan was floating alone in a sea of misery — making bad decisions and not being truly there for Loretta, she can see now.

“I was kind of a mess … I was super depressed,” Jan said.

Things between the two friends grew more strained, although they tried to unwind the tension. But every time they talked, they argued.

Jan felt unappreciated and wasn’t in a mood to hear Loretta.

Loretta, not a fan of conflict, couldn’t seem to get through to Jan — their strong connection was dissolving.

Loretta tried one more tactic, writing down her thoughts in the letter.

As Jan read it, it was like seeing a manifesto of every mistake she’d ever made, she said, making every hard thing worse.

It was 1997, and that was that for a friendship of some 25 years.

When Cliff and Jan finally had a baby, Ethan, 21 years ago, Loretta wasn’t there to celebrate.

“I was sad all the time that Loretta wasn’t getting to know my son,” Jan said.

Loretta did send a handmade racing-theme quilt for Ethan when Jan’s father died, a symbol of the shared love of Indy car races between boy and grandfather.

“I was touched,” Jan remembered. “But it didn’t really open the door.”

Yet Jan, an only child, couldn’t help but think about what a wonderful aunt Loretta would have been for Ethan.

Then came this virus that’s shut our doors and narrowed our lives. Yet it also offered an opportunity to read that letter with an older, wiser heart.

No longer did Loretta’s missive to an angry Jan seem cruel.

Loretta’s words laid out a heart in distress for her dearest friend.

“She saw I was in pain and confused, and she didn’t know how to connect,” Jan said.

“She was writing me out of concern. I could see her side of it, and I saw that must have been really hard for her. I’d put her in an awkward position.”

A decades-old problem needed a present-day fix. Jan impulsively sent Loretta a Facebook friend request.

On her side of the state, Loretta thought it must have been an accident on Jan’s part, but she clicked “accept” anyway.

“She said in a message I’d been on her mind lately,” Jan said. “I asked her why, and she said, ‘I’ve never stopped thinking about you.’”

Their first phone call was two hours long. At the end, Jan chirped out, “OK, talk to you tomorrow.”

Of course she would, Loretta replied. “‘It’s your birthday.’”

Memories of their friendship are being laid out like precious gems; plans for future visits are gold in the pocket to spend as soon as it’s possible.

It’s hard to have to wait, but without a pandemic, Jan might not have cleaned that drawer on a day when she could take her time.

And had she not read the letter in a new light, she probably would have never reached out to Loretta again, Jan said.

“I’m dealing with a lot of regret right now. I wasn’t there when her marriage fell apart. She wasn’t here when my kid did … everything. I feel like we just missed each other’s lives.

“I’m hoping we have some do-over chances.”

I hope so, too. This pandemic will give us some gifts, if we take the time to unwrap them.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.