Lifelong Pen Pals Meet

Melissa Block speaks with Anne Libby and Louise Pelissier about their lifelong pen pal relationship. The two women have been pen pals since fifth grade in 1960. They met for the first time earlier this month at a hotel near Louise's house in Arizona.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Back in 1960, a fifth-grade girl in California sent a letter addressed to Any Elementary School in Bangor, Maine. The letter ended up in the hands of another fifth-grade girl, and the two became pen pals. For 51 years - all through high school, college and adulthood; through braces and later, breast cancer - the two kept writing, though the letters tapered off. Well, earlier this month, the two women met for the first time. Louise Pelissier lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, now. Anne Libby lives in East Lyme, Connecticut. And they both join us to talk about this long and distant friendship. Thanks to you both for being with us.

LOUISE PELISSIER: Thank you.

ANNE LIBBY: Thank you.

BLOCK: And Louise, tell us about that first letter that you sent off to Maine in fifth grade.

PELISSIER: The fifth-grade teacher had a room full of active fifth-graders, and the theme in fifth grade at the time in California was U.S. history and geography. So she got the idea to write - kind of like, throw your line in the ocean and send out a letter, and see if you can find a pen pal someplace in the United States and write to that person.

BLOCK: Anywhere.

PELISSIER: So - anywhere. So I looked at the map of the United States. And being in Northern California, I thought, what's the farthest away from Santa Rosa, California? And I looked and looked and looked. And there's Maine and oh, there's a town, Bangor, Maine. I thought, well, that sounds pretty good.

BLOCK: Just addressed to Any Elementary School. And Anne, it ends up in your hands. Do you remember getting that first letter? What was in it?

LIBBY: I do remember getting it. I don't remember, exactly, what was in it. It came to Mary Snow Elementary in Bangor, and it happened to come to my fifth grade. The teacher asked who was interested in having a pen pal in California, and I said I was. So I got the letter and wrote back to you. And that's how it started.

BLOCK: Do you still have those first letters that you exchanged?

LIBBY: The furthest back that I could find, when I went into the attic last night, was dated in November of 1974. And it was kind of interesting because evidently, I had written to you, Louise, and said that maybe at some point we would both end up in the Midwest - you know, moving from each coast and meeting in the middle, so to speak. And you responded: You're right. Maybe in four years or so, I'll move to Kansas, and you'll move to Indiana. Such is life. When we do meet, I think we should contact the press ahead of time because 14 years is an awful long time to be pen pals.

BLOCK: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PELISSIER: Wow.

LIBBY: So it didn't take 14. It took 50, but...

BLOCK: Now, I gather you both had some shared experiences as adults that you could help each other out with, through your letters.

PELISSIER: Well, we did. Both our mothers had Alzheimer's and passed away before our fathers. And being both of us not having brothers or sisters, I think we could kind of relate to kind of the dynamics of the family of three becomes a family of two and then suddenly, it's a family of one.

LIBBY: Right.

PELISSIER: And we could relate to that. And then, actually, it was the same year - of course, Anne always sends her Christmas cards and Christmas letters very promptly...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PELISSIER: ...unlike me. And in 2003, part of the content of her letter was that she had dealt with breast cancer that year, and that was the same year I also had dealt with breast cancer.

BLOCK: Anne, do you remember getting that letter from Louise where you realized you both were going through breast cancer at pretty much the same time?

LIBBY: Yes. I definitely remember it. I don't think I had told you about it until the Christmas...

PELISSIER: No, you hadn't.

LIBBY: ...card. And I think you dealt with it in September, whereas I had dealt with it in March. Yours was right after I was basically recovering.

BLOCK: Well, after five decades of writing back and forth across the country, Anne, you and your husband were driving across country, and you passed through Arizona. And that's when you called. How was that first meeting for the two of you, when you see each other for the first time?

LIBBY: I don't think we knew what to do or what to say at first.

PELISSIER: It was just so wonderful to see you in the flesh.

LIBBY: Right.

PELISSIER: And it's like we've probably been like an - kind of an abstraction towards each other.

LIBBY: Right.

PELISSIER: And here, it's real...

LIBBY: Right.

PELISSIER: ...finally.

BLOCK: Had you sent photos over the years? Did you have a sense of what the other looked like?

PELISSIER: Well, when we were in elementary school, we did. I remember braces and all that.

LIBBY: I had a mental image in my mind of Louise before we met. And it was a picture taken back in - what, it must have been the late '70s, early '80s.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIBBY: I think you were in Tucson then, and you had long hair.

PELISSIER: Yes. Yes.

LIBBY: And that's - I pictured you as having long hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: What did you end up talking about while you were together?

PELISSIER: What struck me, Anne, was that we just started talking like - talking about things in the present and the future, and just talking about things - like you would with a longtime friend. It was just wonderful.

LIBBY: It really was.

PELISSIER: One of the highlights of my life this year...

BLOCK: Really?

PELISSIER: ...is to finally meet you, Anne.

LIBBY: Oh, absolutely. I feel the same way.

BLOCK: Well, your story, and your history together, is really - it's a testament to the power of the pen and the written letter.

PELISSIER: Yeah. And just the idea of friendships, it's - and all different kinds of ways that friendships are maintained. And with Anne and me, it was with letters.

BLOCK: How many letters do you think the two of you have exchanged over all these years?

PELISSIER: Oh, my God.

LIBBY: Oh.

PELISSIER: For sure, 51. But then...

LIBBY: I was going to say that - yes, at least 51.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ELISSIER: But, you know, maybe because the - maybe the first 20 - 15 or 20 years, was more than once a year, so...

LIBBY: Oh, yes. It was probably at least two or three. And I have a lot of postcards from your travels because, you know, you are a worldwide traveler. And I did find the two from the Seattle World's Fair that you sent in '62, the postcards, so...

BLOCK: And can you read us the message on one of them?

LIBBY: You said: Had lunch in Space Needle day before, got to Seattle 30th, took two-and-a-half-hour tour of the bay today, having fun. So far, we've been on the Wild Mouse from Germany, like a roller coaster. Boy, is it wild. When going down, I flew about one foot off the seat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIBBY: Then on monorail, it's real smooth. No bumps. Tell you more about fair when I write you a letter. Love, Louise.

BLOCK: That's a lot to fit on a postcard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LIBBY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: What is it like to hear that, Louise?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PELISSIER: It's like - well, time travel.

BLOCK: Yeah, I guess so.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, Louise Pelissier and Anne Libby, here's to many more years of your friendship and your correspondence. Thanks for talking to us.

LIBBY: Thank you.

PELISSIER: Well, thank you. It's good talking to you, Anne.

LIBBY: Yeah, you, too, Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That's Louise Pelissier in Arizona, and Anne Libby in Connecticut. They've been pen pals for over 50 years.

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