The Columbus Dispatch
They’ve written letters for 80 years, but they’ve never met – until now
The letter was late.
It was June 12, and Garri White had just turned 92. There was a lot to celebrate. Garri still drives, only takes one pill a day and works part-time at a needlepoint shop in Madeira. This year, she celebrated her birthday with cake at her granddaughter’s home and was honored by a women’s group for her lifelong membership. It would have been perfect, except for the letter. It always came this time of year, all the way from England and always signed “with love.” The letter was late.
Five days passed. Then, eight days passed. Garri called her daughter. She feared her friend, who never missed a birthday and was only a few months away from turning 92 herself, had died. Garri’s daughter told her not to worry, the pandemic probably delayed the mail. But she worried anyway. And she wondered: If something bad happened, how would she find out?
Who would tell her?
Garri wrote her first letter to Doreen Samuel during World War II. She was in Girl Scouts, and a troop leader gave her the address of a young girl about the same age in England. She wrote her, and Doreen wrote back.
Garri wrote about playing in the creek by her home, even though she wasn’t supposed to. She wrote about leeches – she called them bloodsuckers – stuck to her leg. Later, she wrote about her husband, who she met while working at a drug store in Kent, Ohio. He came in every night, ordered coffee and read the paper. Eventually, after three children and even more grandchildren and greatgrandchildren, she wrote about his death. He was 68.
Doreen wrote about half days at school and government-mandated rations because of the war. She wrote about long lines – in England, they call them queues – for bananas and anything from the bakery. She wrote about sleeping on a mattress under the table because it was the safest place in her home. She wrote about her neighbor’s bomb shelter, which was always stocked with candy. Later, she wrote about her wedding in 1961 – the same year Garri gave birth to her third child. Eventually, after three children of her own and many years of happiness, Doreen wrote about all the ways life has slowed down.
Garri wrote letters to other people, and so did Doreen. Back then, it wasn’t unusual to have a pen pal in another country. What’s unusual was this: These two women wrote to each other for more years than most people are alive. They wrote about life and loss and everything in between. At some point, “pen pals” no longer adequately described their relationship.
That’s why Lisa-kaye Kingery found herself searching through Liverpool obituaries this summer. The letter was late and Garri was still worried, despite her daughter’s assurances. So, Lisakaye looked through death notices for a name she hoped not to find.
Garri thought her daughter had forgotten about Doreen, but how could she? Lisa-kaye used to help her mom read the letters, because Doreen often wrote as small as she could to save postage.
But Lisa-kaye had not forgotten. She’d be busy looking.
When Lisa-kaye found no record of any deaths for a Doreen Samuel, she delivered the good news to her mother. Garri was pleased – but still concerned. Maybe Doreen suffered a stroke, she thought. Maybe she got in a car crash. Maybe she was sick.
Even if she was alive, Garri wondered if she could still write.
The letter arrived nine days after Garri’s birthday.
Garri wrote back immediately. She told Doreen she was happy to hear from her.
For weeks after reading it, Garri left it out on the table. Maybe to remind herself: Doreen was still here. At one point, Garri grabbed the letter she thought she might never receive. She almost hugged it. In the letter, Doreen wrote about English COVID-19 restrictions, which she hoped would ease soon, and asked if Garri could believe they’d been writing since they were 10 years old.
A few days before Thanksgiving, Garri sits at her dining room table with a small black and white photo from 1935. She’s holding a datebook Doreen got her for Christmas in 1947, the same year she graduated high school. She glances at the most recent letter from Doreen. She’s anxious for the next one. Today, though, she is nervous for another reason. Doreen had surgery in September, and recovery was more difficult than expected. Garri is eager to hear how she’s doing. And today, she doesn’t have to wait for a letter to find out. In a few minutes, she will speak to Doreen for the first time on a video call.
For more than 80 years, these two women have written letters about Soap Box derbies, high cholesterol and lives that seem like a lifetime ago. But they have never met. Or spoken on the phone. They have never emailed or texted or exchanged Facebook messages.
Until this sunny fall day, when a laptop computer opens in front of Garri at her home in Villa Hills, Kentucky. In England, north of Liverpool on the coast near River Mersey, Doreen’s daughterin-law turns on an ipad.
“There she is,” Garri says when a smiling face with white hair pops onto the screen. “Oh, my goodness!” “Can you believe this?” Doreen says. “I wish I could give you a hug,” Garri says.
Her smile is big enough to cross the Ohio River. It’s a smile usually reserved for babies and weddings and life’s sweetest moments. Make no mistake, this is one of those moments. Because if this was a love story, this is the Hallmark card.
“You look like I thought you would,” Doreen says.
A short time later, Doreen asks about the weather. These are old friends, but they’ve never spoken this way before. They don’t always know what to say. So, they talk about the time difference and when it gets dark where they live. They talk about holiday plans, and Doreen tells Garri she usually eats turkey for Christmas and ham on Boxing Day.
Garri is making cheesecake. Otherwise, she’s cleared her schedule for the day. She even locked her dog Winnie in the kitchen, because she didn’t want to be interrupted. But while Doreen reminisces about childhood, Winnie barks. And Doreen wants to see her. Garri opens the kitchen gate and picks Winnie up before sitting down with the dog in her lap. Winnie usually wakes her up by 6 a.m., Garri says, but she didn’t need help today. She was too excited to sleep in. Garri didn’t tell any of her friends about this conversation, because she worried something might go wrong. Doreen did the same, except for one person. She told that person not to call.
She would be busy.
Fifteen minutes into their call, the internet connection fails. At first, Garri seems confused. Then, she seems sad. “I hope I can get her back,” she says. While Doreen’s daughter-in-law resets the Wi-fi, Garri searches her home. She wants to show Doreen the Christmas ornaments she made her family.
Over the years, Garri has told Doreen as much about her life as any of her family – in some cases, maybe more. When Garri reads a letter from Doreen, she smiles. Garri smiles often, but these smiles are different. Because every letter unearths an old memory. Like how she misses baking Christmas cookies with her kids. Or how she used to take her old dog, Fletcher, to work with her. Or how she sewed all the clothes she wore while teaching at Withrow High School herself.
There’s another memory in the kitchen next to her coffee pot. It’s a wooden box Doreen mailed her 60 years ago. These days, it holds flowers. Back then, it traveled 3,574 miles to America with a 21st birthday cake inside. And it was good.
When the connection resumes, and the video call continues, Garri holds up her ornaments. In the past, she made a few for Doreen, whose tree is decorated with them. Garri and Doreen speak for 40 more minutes. They talk about Christmas cards and what Doreen’s handwriting will look like because of her surgery. It feels like they could talk forever, even if they run out of things to say. They might just smile, and that would be enough.
Before the two women say goodbye, unsure if they will ever speak like this again, Garri tells Doreen she loves her. She says it multiple times, and they both agree.
They must keep writing.