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‘Dear Friend’

Celebrating National Pen Pal Day, June 1

Have you ever had a pen pal? My own experience, back in high school, was decidedly underwhelming. Apparently, “Je suis grande” (“I am tall”) is just as much a deal-killer with French teenage boys as it is with Americans.

Luckily for most people, pen pals were (and are) a great way to meet others and strike up worldwide friendships. Famous historical pen pals include Catherine the Great and Voltaire, Edith Wharton and Henry James, and Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. (Wouldn’t you love to read their correspondence?)

Penning Traditions

The traditional definition of “pen pal” includes the understanding that the two letter-writers don’t know each other ahead of time. “Pals” are matched various ways: Through teacher-driven programs (like the Student Letter Exchange, founded in 1936), computer algorithms (like the Parker Pen company’s pen pal computer, featured at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair), or even online. And it’s not just children doing the letter-writing!

The need to reach out and connect with others drives a steady stream of folks (of all ages) to sites like Pen Pal World, Global Pen Friends and Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals, which operates through Facebook.

Although pen pals traditionally use the postal service, they have many more options these days. Pen Pals can email one another or keep in touch digitally, through phone instant messaging and other services. It’s really up to you! Some pen pals become friends for life. Some even marry!

But let me suggest something radical: Perhaps pen pals don’t have to be strangers? Several of my friends revel in the art of letter-writing. We practically never call one another and seldom email, but our handwritten letters to one another have crossed paths via the mail for years.

The lovely thing about a letter (besides the joy of opening your mailbox and actually receiving something other than ads and bills!) is that it is tangible. You can hold it in your hand. You can reread it. Best of all, you can keep it!

Sharing Stories

My mother wrote beautiful letters to me all of my life, beginning mere moments after I was born. Nowadays, I write to her. She hates cell phones, and the retirement center where she lives doesn’t do landlines. Her days are much less busy than they used to be, so to help fill them up, I send her the latest details of my day-to-day life, memories of the past and questions to exercise her mind. For instance, how did she find out about Pearl Harbor? (She was 9 and had fallen off the handlebars of Barbara Barret’s bicycle on her way to rehearse for the Immaculate Conception procession at school and ruined her only pair of white socks. She was afraid to come home and be scolded, but when she got there, everyone was huddled around the radio).

Did you have a pen pal growing up? What did you learn from your pal? Are you still in touch? Let’s share our stories in the comments section. Or celebrate National Pen Pal Day by writing a letter to someone you care about or haven’t heard from in ages. You might just start something special!

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Lori Strawn

Providence Associate Lori Strawn is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Witchita, Kansas. A 1987 graduate of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Lori formerly served on the advisory board for the Providence Associates.

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3 Comments

  1. Marsha A Speth on June 1, 2021 at 11:28 am

    Yes, I had a pen pal from France when I was in high school. I don’t remember much from the experience except that I loved interacting with someone from another country even with my poor French! I think I still have the lace handkerchief she sent me.
    And I have kept a few significant handwritten letters/cards from my parents, siblings and friends over the years. Precious items!

  2. Linda McMahon on June 1, 2021 at 4:34 pm

    As my pen pal lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, we were not challenged by having a language difference. It would have been grand, though, if we could have spoken by phone as I would have been thrilled to hear a Scottish accent. It was through Girl Scouts/Girl Guides that we had our connection (we each earned a merit badge for our participation). In 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated, she sent me a letter expressing condolences. and I remember feeling special about receiving it. Sadly, we did not continue our correspondence after 1964.

  3. Judith Collins on June 1, 2021 at 9:12 pm

    My pen pal was living in Australia when we were put in touch with each other in the late 1970’s, so we were adults when our correspondence started. Our letters were handwritten, or typed at first on Selectric typewriters; then she began typing on the computer and printing her letters to send. I admired her lovely right-justified margins. She is actually Canadian, and now lives in Toronto, though she spent significant time in Cuba. She has been a travel writer. She ultimately married a Cuban man, who eventually was able to join her in Toronto and has just become a Canadian citizen. Now we email each other several times a month, share pictures and such life stories! covering 44 years. What a joy! And thank you, Lori, for your inspiring words here. To friendship across the miles!!!

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