LONG BEACH — The Valentine came two weeks late but Mary Van Drew swooned anyway. It was from a man she had never met--an El Toro Marine at war, and it arrived at her Long Beach doorstep just hours before President Bush announced a cease-fire.
"To Mary, I know what you're thinking. Better late than never. But . . . it's the thought that counts, and this card is just to let you know that I am thinking of you and that I really do appreciate your letters, and your words of concern. Love Darrell."
They are not sweethearts but pen pals. And Mary Van Drew has scores these days, all of them soldiers in the Persian Gulf.
Darrell Lambert, 22, is among hundreds of American servicemen to whom Van Drew has written cheery letters since last fall. More than 40 have written her back--cards with camels and Christmas trees, note sheets filled with gratitude, postcards from the edge of the war.
And for now, Van Drew, 49, crippled and living on disability, will keep writing.
"I'm not going to give this up until they call me and tell me they're home," she said last week of the four dozen soldiers who have corresponded with her since September. "I'm hoping to meet a bunch of them when they get back."
In longhand, with stamps donated by her neighborhood Catholic parish, the former schoolteacher scrawls as many as 65 letters a week to troops, most of them carrying an inspirational message and her Virginia warmth. She started off with a batch of 150. That was last September.
"I come from a military family. My four brothers were in the Korean War," she said simply. "I just felt it was my patriotic duty to do this. I know I like getting mail. I just thought it could really help their spirits to know people back home cared. They are risking their lives for us."
Disabled with a back and knee injury that forced her out of work, Van Drew lives a Spartan existence in a tiny apartment near downtown Long Beach, a block from St. Anthony Church. She walks to services and the classroom full of children she teaches every Saturday.
"She's been in the parish for years," said Father John Meilak. "She came to me and asked me for help (with the stamps) and I was glad to. She's a real lady."
Her life has been trying, and at times it wouldn't seem she has much to write about. Her marriage was a disappointment, her grown daughter nearly died a decade ago, her weight and several falls left her on disability and her one dream, to be a nun, was denied.
Her letters are decidedly upbeat, filled with cheery wishes and questions about their lives and families. They are also deeply appreciated.
In their dispatches to Van Drew, two soldiers asked that she contact their wives and children. So she watches her money and telephones the families as often as she can.
"We hope to meet her. She sounds really fabulous," said Nancy Mayer, 33, who talked with Van Drew last week. "We will keep in touch with her. She invited us to come out with the kids and stay with her and visit Disneyland. There's not many people like that. We want to adopt her as kind of a third grandma."
Carl Mayer, 38, shipped out of Scott Air Force Base in Illinois six months ago, leaving behind his wife and four children, now 8, 6, 3 and 12 months. Van Drew has corresponded with Mayer, a staff sergeant whose gulf job includes testing and issuing chemical defense equipment to troops, since September. He is a faithful writer.
Darrell Lambert has little or no family. So in simple but emotional words, he wrote Van Drew asking to "adopt" her as a sister.
Now she figures she qualifies for family support and attended the largest such group meeting in Orange County on Sunday.
The 150 or so members who gather monthly to share letters and information are eager to hear Van Drew's bevy of mail, said Kathy Collier, one of the group's founders.
"Bless her heart," Collier said. "It really helps to know there are people out there like that. (The servicemen) have all written her and said they wanna meet her when they come home."