Pen pals endure

Bette, right, and her pen pal Veronica

When the phone rang in the Yorkshire home we were visiting, I didn’t know how strongly the call would affect me. My husband and I were on our first trip to Europe, staying with English acquaintances in Pickering. We had spent three exciting days seeing our first English castles, riding on double-decker buses and touring a spectacular cathedral in York. 

The phone call that night was from my pen pal of 45 years. She was calling from Gateshead near Newcastle to set up our meeting for the following day – our first-ever meeting. I knew seeing her face to face would be something to remember, but I was not expecting to be so overwhelmed by her voice on the telephone. 

Ours had been a very steady and old-fashioned pen-pal relationship. We traded light-blue airmail letters for many decades, and only recently converted to emails. In all those years, though, we had never spoken, and we only knew each other’s faces from the photos we had exchanged. 

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Now, tomorrow, she and her husband were coming to “collect us” for a four-day adventure of seeing the sights with them. I am sure that we were all a little apprehensive. What if we didn’t like each other away from the written word or we didn’t click with the spouses? Four days was a good test, we felt, just in case. 

I vividly remember when I picked Veronica Birkett’s name out of a hat in 1961 as part of my third-grade teacher’s pen-pal initiative. When we were 9, our letters were very chatty and friendly, as we shared the little details of our daily lives. Veronica has a great wit, and I treasured her letters and the items she sent me: British comic books, many about ballet boarding school drama, and photos of rock stars clipped from magazines. In one of her letters, she asked: “Have you heard of the Beatles? They’re all the rage here.” Seems we really just wrote of the mundane and not of the important things; we were so very young.

Once we met, Veronica opened up about one incident of her childhood that she hadn’t revealed in her letters. When she was a preteen, her father took her to the store for some sweets. That’s when she found out he was leaving their family. When her mother was on the verge of losing her children to foster homes due to financial constraints, a kindly neighbor who admired their mother helped the family financially and kept them together. Later, he became Veronica’s much-beloved stepfather. 

I was overwhelmed when I heard her reveal this story, as I had had a naïve, sheltered, small-town childhood and never knew of her troubles. Her world was certainly different than mine. 

I saved all of her letters up through our teenage years and made a scrapbook of them for her 50th birthday. As special as those first 45 years were, the last eight – since we met – have made us great friends. 

That day in Pickering when we met each other for the first time revealed that our common interests and goals were the reason we wrote for so many years. 

Now, my husband and I are looking forward to seeing Veronica and Ron for the fifth time in the next year or two. We all travel well together, and we enjoy their British wit, their love of British history and a pint of good ale along the way. 

Bette, right, and her pen pal Veronica