Pen Pal Friends

It’s no surprise that the news came in the form of a letter. Driving out of town we stopped at the cluster of mailboxes for our street. “Mail, mail, I want some,” comes in surround sound from both children in the backseat.

“Yes, I’ll get the mail. Maybe there’s something for you?” Hoping there’s some junk mail to keep them occupied. I roll down my window and open our mailbox labeled 705. For much of my life there hasn’t been a time when I haven’t felt the joy in waiting to see what lies behind the open door. And then feeling the disappointment when there’s no handwritten letters or postcards addressed to me.

Today, though, I smile at first sight of the purple envelope with the recognizable return address from North Dakota. “Mama got a letter today!” I squeal in delight.

“Me, me, I want to see,” Charlotte cheers from the back with her outstretched hand reaching to me.

“Me too, I want some,” Isaac never wanting to miss out on something his older sister wants.

“Let me read it first.” I’m almost as impatient as my kids in tearing open the letter. I’ve never had any use for the classic letter openers that rip in one fell swipe. Rather my letters are torn quickly leaving mountain-like edges on the envelope. In between shouts of “mine” and “I see” I make it through the handwritten note with the beautiful cursive. A smile growing on my face.

Barely containing my excitement, I almost shout, “Stephen! Annika wants to come and visit! She’ll be on vacation and in our area. She wants to meet! This May! I can’t believe it!”

“Mama, I see!”

“Okay! Isaac take the envelope and here, Charlotte, you can read the card, but don’t mess it up. I need to keep this, it’s from mama’s penpal who she’s going to meet in person for the first time.”

On the second shelf of a large bookcase in our office, the catch-all room for everything we’re not sure where to put, a plastic clear container box is filled with letters. Dumping them all out I search at the bottom for the earliest letters from 1990. I was 8 years old. Falling from one of the letters I find a school picture of Annika, smiling at me with her long blonde hair and glasses. The back has her signed name and the words, age 8. I find letter after letter from my penpal Annika telling me about her life in rural North Dakota growing up on a ranch. She has horses and cows, mends fences, loves Little House on the Prairie, loves to read, and delights in her Scandinavian heritage.

I hold one envelope in my hand with a postmark from 1998. The return address label includes Snoopy thinking that “Happiness is a letter from a good friend.” I agree as I find two pages of stationary written with blue cursive.

Dear Kim,

Hey!” What’s going on in Ohio? Enjoying winter yet? We have over a foot of snow. Wednesday my dad, brother, myself and my friend rode horseback about 9 miles trailing 27 heifers back to our place. It was a beautiful day to do it, and we are so happy that we have them home. Unfortunately, we don’t have all our hay bales hauled home yet. We were hauling today, but on our 2nd load, right before dark, about 5 bales fell off right in the middle of the road. Not a good thing… We had to run to find a pitchfork or shovel. Luckily we got most of the hay shoveled off to the side before it was too dark...My calves are doing really well, too!
Friends, and Pen Pals, Annika Grace ” -1998

Through our letters we find out our birthdays are only five days a part and that we both attend Lutheran churches. We played volleyball in school. We both enjoy Amy Grant’s music. And we both love all things almond-flavored.

I suppose I have the Stamper Pen Pal program through the United States Post Office to thank for our years of letter-writing. Or maybe more likely, it’s my mother I should thank for signing me up. Either way, the fact remains: I’ve had the same penpal for 28 years of my life. Well more than half of my life.

Over the last 28 years our letters have borne witness to our lives, one letter at a time. The innocence of childhood and the awe found in learning about life that seemed so different from our own. The interest in hearing about our schools and favorite classes. The wonder of beginning college and starting fresh. The heartache of watching loss and grief unfold.


The morning of Annika’s visit I wait on our porch. The kids have been running around the yard. The hanging baskets have been watered. All that’s left to do is wait. I’m excited but wonder what it will be like to finally meet this person who I’ve grown up with through letters. There’s a sense of impatience at finally getting to meet Annika in person, but also a sense of wanting to wait just a bit longer to live in this moment of only knowing her through her letters.

The kids make their way to the park with visiting Grammy and Pop while Stephen and I talk on the porch. “What if you don’t have anything to talk about? Are you nervous?”

I don’t have any hesitation in answering him, “No, we’ve known each other most of our lives. We’ve written so many letters, we’re connected on Facebook now. We have a lot of history. I’m just excited.”

I see the green Subaru first as she parks across the street at the playground. I smile, stand up, and make my way down the driveway. I recognize her blond hair and delight in the North Dakota Home shirt she’s wearing proudly.

“Hello! I can’t believe it,” I say and lean in for a hug with no hesitation.

After thousands of letters and 28 years we meet. With a hug.

Then I hear her voice, different but not unexpected, with her Dakota accent. But I notice it and make a mental note. After years of knowing someone by their handwriting and words I now have the chance to hear her voice. Pieces of the same person, snapshots of a life found in pen and paper and now in person.

Our time together is pure joy and delight. We talk nonstop. We walk around my town. My kids show her their rooms. We enjoy lunch and unique shops in town.

With a gentle breeze from the screen door, we sit at the dining room table. One by one we pick up a letter to read. There’s the green and pink Stamper Official Membership Card plus matching stationary. Colored envelopes filled with stickers of cats and dogs and angels. Pink stationary, lined paper, and notecards fill the box. We sip coffee and look through 28 years worth of friendship.

Annika goes between laughter and embarrassment as she rereads her words, “Oh, this was classic young Annika!”

By the time she has to get back on the road, I have a sense that we still have so much left to talk about, but look forward to sharing more thoughts in my next letter.

My kids are napping when she leaves. Later Charlotte will pick up the letters left scattered on the table. “Mama’s friend?” she asks.

“Yes, they’re all from my friend.” Not only a penpal, but a friend. My friend.