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For some, pen pals continue to make the best of friends

July 15, 2017 Updated: July 18, 2017 at 9:22 am
Caption +
Ann Warhola, right, and daughter Debbie Kelley. The pen pal hobby is fighting to find its place in the technological revolution. "I like it because it's more personal, compared to writing on the computer," said Warhola. (Courtesy of Debbie Kelley, The Gazette)

Agnes, a retired teacher who lives in Ohio, knows all about my work, my family, my high-altitude gardening, my assorted pets and my hikes in the Rocky Mountains.

So does Karen, who recently retired from a government job in Washington, D.C., and enjoys playing bingo and eating at restaurants; and Mary, an Iowa resident who travels with her truck-driving husband.

We've never been introduced.

These women are familiar with my life because they are my mom's pen pals.

She's never met most of them either. But over the decades, they've become dear to her heart.

In putting pen to paper, they've shared happiness and sorrow, the big events of births, graduations, weddings and deaths, and the little things that make life interesting and valuable.

"You get to know the people, and they get to know you," said my mom, Ann Warhola. "I like it because it's more personal, compared to writing on the computer."

Like newspaper delivery, cable television service and mall shopping, the pen pal hobby is fighting to find its place in the technological revolution.

Lucille Suennen's monthly "Country Crafter & Pen Pal Magazine," which she has produced for 64 years out of her home in Wisconsin, had a circulation of 2,700 in the 1960s.

She was a young wife and mother of four when she started the mimeographed publication in 1953.

"We lived in the country and had no close neighbors, no phone and no car," she said in a phone interview. "I needed an outlet to save my wits."

She threw "a little bit of everything" on the pages - recipes, sewing patterns, crafting ideas, poems, puzzles, her own drawings, classified ads, messages of comfort and cheer, and requests for pen pals. A steadfast base of followers grew.

Then, "All the colorful, slick magazines came out, and people preferred the colors to black and white," she said.

The computer age came next.

Now she has slightly more than 400 subscribers from around the nation, a few from Canada and one "very dear lady" from Ireland.

Not everyone owns a computer, Suennen said, and even some who do don't like communicating electronically.

Some prefer the old-fashioned pastime of letter writing, which English poet Lord Byron called "the only device for combining solitude with good company."

"Some just have pen, paper and the mailbox," Suennen said of her readers. "They have a lot of fun doing it."

Many are older folks whose families and friends have moved away or, in some cases, passed on. Some have a few pen pals, others 50 or more.

"They're lonely and need someone to converse with," said Suennen, who at 90 remains faithful to churning out her "Country Crafter" each month. She types the information on a computer instead of a typewriter but still cuts and pastes some of the items onto the 81/2-by-11-inch copied pages.

The labor of love has become more like a job.

"There are other publications out there, but they're not as large as mine," Suennen said.

There's no charge for pen pal listings. That's how my mom acquired many of her dozen or so pen pals. She started exchanging letters with people who were strangers in the 1960s, when she was a young mother.

Her first pen pal was Agnes from Ohio. They have been writing back and forth for 45 years. They once met face-to-face, when Agnes attended a convention in Denver about 30 years ago.

Their letters have become less frequent; Agnes is 86 and dealing with arthritis. But their friendship is strong.

"She sends cards and short notes now," my mom says, adding that Agnes likes to write about her children and grandchildren.

Laurie Bouchard, a retired executive assistant from Manchester, N.H., started collecting pen pals in the 1970s and had five at one point.

She's down to one: my mom.

"She's one of the best friends I've ever had," Bouchard said by phone.

The two bonded over family experiences in the early years and more recently over the deaths of their husbands.

"We talk about what we've been through; sometimes we grouse to each other. We've shared about our jobs, our families, our activities," said Bouchard, who is French Canadian.

They met in person on a couple of occasions.

"The first time, she sent me a postcard that looked like Maine, and I contacted her and said, 'What do you mean you're in Maine and didn't tell me? Would you be interested in getting together?'"

My mom, who lives in northern Colorado, was attending a conference in New England at the time.

They talk regularly on the phone, sometimes two or three times a week.

"Having pen pals has been a really great experience," Bouchard said. "I made a lot of good friendships and learned about different ways of life."

My mom also has found it interesting to hear about the lives of people who live in other parts of the country. She stays away from certain topics, though, including politics and illnesses.

"I just don't want to get into that," she said.

Decades ago, she unquestioningly decided to accept a pen pal request from Dee, a black woman who lives in Chicago.

"She said, 'You don't have to write if you don't want because I'm black,'" my mom said. "I wrote back and said, 'It does not matter to me what color or race you are. That's not how I was raised.'"

Dee and my mom are still pen pals. My mom brags that Dee has lived just a few blocks from former President Barack Obama.

"It's a great way to meet people," Suennen said of the hobby.

Unlike my millennial children, who seem to forget to check their mailbox for days, the arrival of a snail-mail letter is eagerly anticipated by some, including my mother.

As children's book author Susan Lendroth said, "To write is human, to receive a letter: Divine!"

A handwritten letter, personal photos, a card of well wishes or even a small gift from a pen pal can brighten the day. It's a pick-me-up, my mom says.

"It makes you happy," she said. "I think it's getting popular again because there's a lot more elderly people who want someone to write to."

Suennen knows her magazine produces results.

"I put a note in for everyone to send a card to a lady who turned 100 years old in May, asking for her to get 100 cards," Suennen said. "She wrote me and said she got over 100 cards. She said it was a great day."

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