The letters have been arriving for 70 years.

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This article was published 15/11/2021 (194 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The letters have been arriving for 70 years.

It took nowhere near that long in their correspondence for Margaret Hunt and Marion Sheppard to feel like sisters. From the beginning, they called themselves pen pal twins: Born on the same day in the same year on farms more than 500 kilometres apart, they connected via an ad in a 1951 edition of this newspaper.

They were eight years old then, and they’ve been writing to each other ever since.

Neither can remember who placed the ad or what drew them to it. Each seems to recall the other was the initiator. But what is certain is their commitment to putting pen to paper, slowly building a connection that draws them closer even now, as 78-year-olds, in physically distant times not so dissimilar to the long-distance friendship of their youth. The lessons they’ve learned about connection are still serving them well.

"It was really special because growing up, I guess being an only child, I didn’t have anybody, so once I got in touch with her, then I did," says Hunt, who was then Margaret McGregor.

With plans to see each other postponed till after the pandemic, they reflected on their milestone in typical handwritten fashion. It was Hunt who noted the anniversary.

"I think on her letter she said, ‘You know, we’ve been writing each other for 70 years.’ Holy smokes! The years have gone by so fast, and you don’t really think of it as that long. It’s just a blur," says Sheppard, née Marion Robertson.

At her daughter’s urging, Sheppard wrote to Hunt this fall to ask for her phone number, so that a Free Press reporter could give them both a call. Both women live in Ontario and credit the newspaper for bringing them together. They’re not the only ones. Scanning this paper for mention of another kid looking for a pen pal was how several Canadian children found early friendships in the 1950s.

Through childhood, a year in boarding school together, marriages, first jobs, the births of their children, then grandchildren, then great-grandchildren, they never lost touch. The letters have tapered off, now that sitting down to write takes longer than it once did, both women admit. But not a birthday or holiday passes without a few heartfelt words sent through the mail.

"I never really thought of not being in touch, you know, it’s just something we’ve always done. It’s not as often now as it used to be, but that’s ‘cause we’re older, I guess," Hunt says.

"I just always felt as though we’d always keep it up, as long as we were able to. I would never think of not sending her a Christmas card and letter," Sheppard says.

"To this day, I love writing letters," she continues. "At Christmastime, I get all these Christmas cards, no letters. Or, if there’s a letter there, it’s typewritten on the computer. Other than from Marg, that’s the only one I think that we get where they’re handwritten," she adds proudly. "I write. I think if they’re worthwhile sending a Christmas card to, they’re worthwhile getting a letter."

When they started writing to each other, Sheppard’s correspondence with various pen pals was making a noticeable dent in her father’s supply of two-cent stamps.

"He’d say, ‘My goodness, my stamps are disappearing fast!’" she says, giggling at the memory.

"So I had to cut down on how many I wrote to, and I chose Margaret because our birthdays are the same day."

Both from Scottish farming families in rural Ontario, they soon realized they shared more than a birthday.

"We had a lot in common, actually," Hunt says.

After years of trading long letters — sometimes four full pages, front and back, no wasted paper — the 11-year-olds plotted an adventure. They mailed each other their school portraits and agreed to meet for the first time at the landmark fountain on the fairground of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

"Oh yeah, that was really gonna be something!" Sheppard recalls. "As soon as I saw her, I knew it was her."

"And my parents, of course they would say, ‘Well you know, you probably won’t even recognize her because there’ll be lots of other people around the same age as you guys,’ but I recognized her!"

"It was really something, sitting on the side of a fountain like two sisters," Hunt remembers.

For Grade 9, they convinced their parents to let them go to a Christian boarding school together, and that year they celebrated their 15th birthday with a trip to Niagara Falls. They each recalled those memories fondly, as some of their best times.

"It was special for her. She still remembers it. She just mentioned it on the last letter that she wrote," Hunt says of her friend’s first trip to the Falls.

Their bond was an easy one — they could always find things to talk or write about.

"Just comes natural. Time flies and you pay no attention," Sheppard says.

As they grew up, they found ways to stay close. Hunt sang at Sheppard’s wedding. They sent each other an album’s worth of photos of their children. Neither of them saved any of their letters, knowing another would come soon enough.

"I guess I probably take it for granted too much. She probably does too," Hunt says with a laugh.

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When Victoria Ryczak was growing up in a Ukrainian family on a farm north of Yorkton, Sask., she never imagined the pen pal she wrote to regularly would still be one of her closest confidantes 70 years later. But that’s exactly what happened, in circumstances remarkably similar to Hunt and Sheppard’s.

Ryczak, now 83, was 12 when she answered an ad in this newspaper and started corresponding with a pen pal in Alberta, who put her in touch with a girl in Quebec named Kathleen Wallace.

"At that time, there were no telephones, there was nothing except the newspapers. And this is what we relied on, the Winnipeg Free Press. When my dad went on horseback to a little town to pick up our mail, my brother and I, we could hardly wait for him to bring the mail back so we can read all the articles and everything else."

Ryczak and Wallace also shared a birthday, thought of themselves as twins, and arranged their first meeting at the 1967 Montreal Expo.

"The connection, it was just wonderful. When Kathleen died, I think something died with me. That’s the way it was with us," Ryczak says from her home in Canora, Sask.

After Wallace’s death earlier this year, Ryczak was interviewed by the CBC about their enduring friendship. The story struck a chord with other women all over the country, and Ryczak now has multiple new pen pals.

"I think maybe we just took it for granted that things would continue, but look, things happen in life and what can you do? Right now, I really feel that because of her passing, I’m kind of lost, but because of these ladies writing to me, they really have helped me tremendously."

She knows she was lucky to have 70 years with a great friend, Ryczak says, and she’s urging others to stay connected. It’s especially important now that many people are isolated during the pandemic, she says.

"A lot of people think they have nothing to do; they always complain. But sit down and write to somebody! Write a letter, or just a few words," Ryczak says.

"It’s so satisfying. You don’t have to think about anything — just be yourself, just write people, just tell them exactly how you feel... it’s so easy. Well, for me it is."

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It’s not difficult for Sheppard to transport herself back to being eight, remembering what it was like to read her friend’s "lovely" penmanship, pages full of details about pets and school. In an instant, she’s remembering how she’d walk down a little hill to get to the mailbox at the end of the driveway, filled with anticipation.

"Oh, I was thrilled. It was fun to get her letters, and she’d write long letters, just like I wrote back to her," she says.

"She’s sort of like a sister to me."

She was always the shy pen pal, but Hunt says she still gets a good feeling when she opens up mail from Sheppard — the connection is there.

"It’s sharing, I guess," she says. "You know, what’s happening with our kids, and we still do that. Now it’s just all about the grandkids."

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.