“Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female,” Jane Austen wrote in Northanger Abbey. For proof, one only has to look to penpals Jill Stretton and Cathie Alexander, who’ve maintained a faithful correspondence for seven decades while living half a world apart.
The long-lived letter-writing relationship began in 1950 when 12-year-old Stretton (née Frankling), who hails from Australia, was given Alexander’s (then McIntosh) address by a family friend who’d recently returned from a visit to Scotland.
Back in the day, it could take up to six weeks for a long-distance airmail letter to reach its destination, but the pair felt an instant rapport after their first communication that’s only grown stronger with time.
Though the two women didn’t meet in person until 1982, they feel as if they truly grew up with one another, sharing life’s milestones, through their letters.
“She is just like one of the family,” Stretton told ABC North Queensland. “And we are still as together as we ever were 70 years ago. It is quite an achievement.”
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Stretton and Alexander reunited two more times; once in 1988, and again in 2000, and have never stopped writing one another. Along with hopes, dreams, plans, photos, and family updates, through the years, their missives have sometimes contained small mementos that have gone on to become cherished family keepsakes.
While they still write letters and send holiday packages, with technology omnipresent, Stretton and Alexander have bowed, at least somewhat, to the times (although video calls are a washout).
For longer epistles, they’ve resorted to the internet, but they affirm that nothing takes the place of a handwritten note. “We do tend at the moment to send postcards of where we have been and what we are doing rather than write big letters because we email now,” Stretton admitted, adding cheekily, “Aren’t we clever?”
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“The distance is nothing when one has a motive,” Jane Austen also wrote. For dedicated lifelong penpals Stretton and Alexander, that bit of wisdom has proved true as well.
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