The letters began coming eight years ago, in the tidy blue penmanship of a nurse or a schoolteacher. Sometimes the envelopes were white, sometimes they were yellow or red. I cannot give you a count. I can only say there were many. They came at Christmas. They came after an award or a TV appearance. They came for no reason at all, merely to say hello and thanks.
They all contained the phrase “Your No. 1 fan.”
In the mind of Stephen King, this was enough to launch a novel, “Misery,” a horrifying tale of a reader’s obsession with a writer. She follows him, ties him up and whacks him with a sledgehammer. Of course, King probably has fans like that. I am not blessed with such a problem.
So there was no fear when those letters came from Isabelle. Only a smile. Over the years, I learned that she was a grandmother to 14 children, she lived in Garden City, she listened to baseball games on a radio by her bed. One time she thanked me for a column I wrote about pencil boxes, and she said she used to cherish a pencil box as a child, so I gather she did not grow up rich.
Other than that, I knew little about this woman, until she came to a book-signing and was introduced by her son-in-law.
“This is Isabelle,” he said. “You know, your No. 1 fan.”
I am happy to report there were no sledgehammers. Just a sweet old face with a shy demeanor. I thanked her for all her letters and told her she wrote me more than anyone. This seemed to please her, and, not long after, I got a letter thanking me for that. Letter-perfect memories
Over the years, Isabelle charted my career, taking notice of the smallest details. In her letters lay a glistening pool of my recent life:
Nov. 4, 1991 — “My heartfelt congratulations on your most enjoyable new radio program. I found the interview with Kirk Gibson particularly interesting . . .”
May 23, 1992 — “On the one hand, I am desolate at the prospect of your column not appearing in my paper for two months. But I have wondered how you keep up such a busy pace and I know you need a break . . .”
May 12, 1993 — “I want to thank you for phoning me after my husband’s recent death. I know that the suggestion came from my family, who felt that I needed a kind word to comfort me . . .”
Dec. 21, 1994 — “Merry Christmas from your Number One Fan! I am looking forward to the extra enjoyment your column will add to my daily living . . .”
I do not deserve such attention. But in Isabelle’s case, I got used to it. She asked for nothing. She was unfailingly polite.
And then, one day, the letters stopped.
Last month, I got a message to call her son-in-law. I was busy at the time, put the number in my pocket and called a few days later. Nothing.
The next week, I got another message. Again, we did not connect. A few days later, I found a note on my desk:
“Allen Bank called. Isabelle’s son-in-law. Isabelle died on Monday. She was your No. 1 fan.” Arts and letters
There’s a story about Ernest Hemingway, who had his share of admirers. One of them came up at a pub and, upon getting an autograph, exclaimed, “Thanks, Mr. Hemingway!” Hemingway nodded. A few minutes later, the guy circled the table and said, “Hello, Ernest!” Hemingway grunted. A few minutes later, feeling even more confident, the guy came around again and said, “Hello, Papa!” Hemingway lowered his head and growled, “Hello — and good-byyyee!”
For the famous, that’s what fandom has become, hasn’t it? The admirers don’t know when to stop, and the admired don’t know how to be polite. Again, since I don’t have Hemingway’s problems, my reaction was different. I was sad. And curious.
So I called Allen, and this is what he told me about my dear, departed friend, 83-year-old Isabelle Kusluski. That she named her cat “Mitch,” after me. That she had all my columns in a scrapbook. That last month, when she lay in a coma after a stroke suffered during heart surgery, Allen held her hand and whispered, “Mitch is coming to see you,” and he felt a response.
Such a strange thing, isn’t it? To be admired from afar? And yet, I feel I should have been at that hospital. Although we shared no family, no common ties, Isabelle and I were connected in a way. We shared words.
By the way, you may wonder where I got those letters printed above. I kept them. I keep them all. Maybe one day, when I’m older, Isabelle’s sentences will keep me company the way mine once did for her.
What makes someone an admirer? I do not have the answer. But wherever you are, my No. 1 fan, I hope you know it ran both ways.