The post-script postcard
How a long-forgotten parcel became a unifying force for family, strangers, globe
By CHRISTOPHER HEIMERMAN
For the Illinois Press Association
SPRINGFIELD – Leena Kizilbash has written a litany of works, from poetry and plays to fantasy novels.
But not even the most gifted writer could conjure up the story that’s enriched her family’s life and gripped a national audience eager to learn how it ends.
Even if it were written, she ponders whether readers would believe it.
“If someone had written this story, people would say it’s fantastical and complete fantasy,” said Leena, 50, a psychiatrist from Chicago who moonlights as a fiction writer. “It would have been hard to believe.”
On July 8, Kim Draper checked the mail at her Springfield home and nearly discarded a seemingly errant postcard — until she looked closer and saw the date. That day marked the 26-year anniversary of the day Masrour Kizilbash sent what he considered an inconsequential postcard to his wife, Yasmin, and children, Leena and Mohammad.
Aware that Kizilbash is hardly a common name in America, Draper set out to find the family. She braced with anticipation that Masrour was no longer with us.
“In this day and age, there’s Skype, FaceTiming and texting. Even international calls back then were expensive, so we’d send postcards,” she said. “I thought that might be one more way for them to see his handwriting.”
That is, if Masrour had passed.
“That is not the case,” the 79-year-old confirmed over the phone Friday, Aug. 2, laughing. “I am very much alive.”
In 1993, Masrour worked for Harza Engineering as a dam engineer, a gig that brought him to China, where he worked on the Ertan Dam — while he wasn’t collecting experiences and describing them to his family. He still works part-time for the engineering firm, although it’s merged into Stantec.
In the postcard, he shared what he considered a couple of innocuous anecdotes from a leisure visit to Hong Kong — about small wooden boats, called sampans, on the water often used as houses or restaurants. He described how on one particular vessel, seafood crawled across his plate, and a lobster that was alive mere moments before being served.
“I’d never thought you could see food alive 10 minutes before you eat it,” he said. “That was my recollection. That’s what I remember — not writing that card so much.”
On the card were sampans, so he bought it “for 2 cents,” he said, and sent it along — a routine practice while away for work.
“It was such a simple thing to do: Send a card,” Masrour said.
A good judge of a good story
Draper, 42, is well-versed in compelling stories — many of them tragic, but many others as uplifting as they are improbable. Before joining Springfield’s Memorial Medical Center as an administrative assistant in its kidney transplant department, she held that title for the Illinois Press Association. She was in charge of soliciting submissions from member newspapers during contest season. She’d then process all those stories, columns and photos and help organize the annual convention.
In an era preceding PDF files, she was dog-earing and categorizing hundreds upon hundreds of stories.
“There were a lot of touching ones,” she said.
So what set this one aside, some might wonder?
“I feel like a lot of people told me they wanted to hear the ending of it, and how it would come full circle,” she said. “It’s such an odd thing to happen — for a postcard to just show up 26 years later, and a father writing it to his children. People were invested because it was such a heartfelt thing.”
The story has been picked up by news outlets coast to coast, and prompted an in-depth piece written by South China Morning Post reporter Lauren James, who told Draper in mid-July she’d send copies of the newspaper.
The reactions of Draper’s children speak to the passage of time and distance between two neighboring eras. Danielle, 24, has marveled at the way it’s gone viral, with millions of shares on social media.
Cody, 12, can’t wrap his brain around the appeal, either.
“He said he can’t believe this has blown up over a postcard,” she said. “Although he said maybe there’s hope for the fidget spinner he ordered from China two years ago.”
The message heard ‘round the world
Masrour admits he, too, was floored by the way hearts across the globe latched onto the tale.
“It was no great thing, to send a postcard,” he said. “Usually people get famous for doing a great thing, not for doing nothing.”
He said research has led him to think the postcard’s travel itinerary got gummed up in Carol Stream — but no one has been able to get a definitive answer.
Upon reflection, he compared such an inadvertent time capsule to putting a message in a bottle and sending it off to sea.
“But honestly, that was not the intention,” Masrour said.
He said the media attention has led to long-forgotten colleagues reaching out, and it’s been extraordinary to reconnect.
For instance, he recently spoke with a man he’d hired, Chin Chou. Masrour learned Chou had become the vice president of a big company, had a family, and would be visiting the states soon.
“I said, ‘My God, look at this,’” Masrour said. “In 25 years, he’d gotten married, they’d had a daughter, a 19-year-old who got a scholarship and is studying in New York, and he’s going to visit. It became exciting. All this happened because of this story.”
Yasmin said she’s heard from many family members, including a nephew in Singapore and a niece in Dubai who saw the story broadcast on CNN.
“People keep asking, ‘Are these Kizilbash your family?’ ” she said.
The Kizilbashes got to experience Hong Kong as a family over the years. Leena showcased her gift for prose as she described the scenery in a recent email:
“Hong Kong and China … radically different territories in the same epoch,” she wrote. “Both places were very social. Great masses of tumbling humanity in Hong Kong. Father-and-son electronic stores. High rises like beanstalks. Multi-national tourists. Pairs of monks clad in orange togas.
“China was mellow and vocal."
The next chapter
The beauty of this story is it isn’t yet over. Draper said once she gets copies of James’ article, she’ll bring them to the family — along with the postcard, of course.
“We haven’t even asked her for it,” Masrour said.
“We’re more interested in meeting her than the postcard,” Yasmin said. “She’s the one who brought this to the limelight. She did the work.”
Mohammad, 45, and his family — a wife and three children — will soon be home from vacation in California to be part of the reunion. He works as a cardiologist in Barrington.
Leena has found a way to merge her passion with her vocation, and is working on a mental health book for primary care health professionals.
She said she hasn’t considered writing about her family’s newfound story, but that she wouldn’t be surprised to see someone’s name attached to it — or some permutation of it — someday.
“I never know when I sit down to write — it could be triggered by word, or something my grandmother said to me when I was a child,” she said. “One never knows where inspiration comes from.”