70 years on, pen pals connect over Internet.
By Bob Dyer
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but this is ridiculous. Lois Csontos-Nielsen and Freda Jones have been friends for 70 years. They have been in each other's presence exactly four times -- an average of once every 17 1/2 years.
This odd friendship is the equivalent of an arranged marriage. In 1946, when Lois was 12, she saw a story in the Weekly Reader that said young people in England were looking for pen pals in the United States.
British officials appreciated the sacrifices Americans had made for their country during the just-ended World War II, and young folks were being encouraged to form bonds with young Americans to strengthen the alliance. Once the matchmakers hooked them up, Freda wrote a note to Lois.
Lois still has it, 70 years later. She fished it out the other day for some visitors to her home in Sharon Township, where she has lived for half a century. Dated July 1, 1946, the introductory greeting covers several pages of tiny stationary. Lois agreed to read it aloud.
"I'm afraid I do not exactly answer to your wish because I am 15, not 12. But I have wanted a pen pal in the USA for such a long time."
"Yes, I have got a pet. He's a dog. He is all white except for one black patch over his left eye. He also likes meat and cake."
Lois laughs, as do her visitors.
"Have you got any brothers or sisters? I have only one sister who is 17. She is going to take up nursing as a career...."
"Have you got a picture of yourself I could have? Would you like one of me?"
"I noticed that your father is a clergyman. My father owns large lorries. I believe you call them 'trucks.'"
"I used to know a lot of American soldiers when they were over here."
"I will close for now. From your pen pal and friend,
Fast-forward to 2016. Freda's most recent letter arrived not by boat, not by plane, but with the push of a button. The tone is as different as the delivery method.
"Thank you for my birthday greetings. I had a lovely day. Pat took me to a stately home near Shrewsbury. We had a couple of hours looking round at all the old furniture and then we had a delicious afternoon tea."
"Since then I have been doing very poorly. I was rushed off to hospital in an ambulance. I had an infection in my kidney again like I had three years ago and again ended up with sepsis."
"For three days I was right out of it. I was in hospital for a week and I have been home a week. They put in a stent. ...
"I am feeling a little better but very weak. ...
"Lots of love to you and all the family.
The arc of time changes the tone of everyone's letters. But nothing has changed this friendship.
THROUGH IT ALL
Writing at least three or four times a year, they kept at it through three collective marriages and the deaths of all three husbands -- two for Lois.
They kept at it through the birth of five kids, three for Lois. Now they not only have grandkids, but also great-grandkids, three for Freda and a fourth on the way for Lois.
The women wrote their way through the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, through the first human on the moon, through Korea and Vietnam and all those other miserable wars, through JFK and all those other awful assassinations, through the conquering of polio and the terrorism of 9/11.
Through 14 prime ministers and 12 presidents. Through a population growth from 49mn to 65mn in Great Britain and 141mn to 323mn in the States.
And through seemingly half a million moves by Lois.
Because of her father's different ministry assignments, "I grew up everywhere," she says with a laugh.
Born in a little mining town in western Maryland, her homes were as far afield as Africa. When the pen pals first connected, Lois was in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. Her first move to Ohio came when her father took over a pulpit in East Palestine.
From there Lois moved to Cleveland to attend the Carnegie Institute, studying to be a medical technician. She spent most of her career working for doctors in Lodi who had a private practice and an in-house lab.
The two women didn't meet in person until 1977 -- 31 years after the first letter.
LOIS WENT FIRST
After visiting Sweden, Lois and her husband took a boat to Britain, arriving at an eastern port. Freda, who lived in west-central England in a small town called Bridgnorth, warned Lois that she was in for a "very long" car ride. The distance: about 200 miles.
"I said, 'In my country, that would not have gone across the top of my state."
A visitor asks what surprised Lois the most about her friend the first time they met.
"We were just friends already," she says. "It was very comfortable."
"Her husband was a farmer. They were very nice."
A few years later, Freda and her husband came to the States, requesting a visit to Niagara Falls and a friend's house in Toronto. Then they were treated to Northeast Ohio attractions, including something most folks don't have access to.
"At the time, I had an Amish friend in the Middlefield area," Lois says. "She arranged for us to go to the Amish school, which was so neat for Freda. The kids had pieces they recited, and they sang for us.
"Freda said later she thought the best part of the whole trip was going to that school."
The highlight of Lois' second trip to England came in Lake District National Park: "We drove up and actually saw where Peter Rabbit lived" -- aka the 17th-century farmhouse once occupied by author Beatrix Potter.
"My daughters and I were so excited. Freda's husband said, 'I can't believe how excited you are over a rabbit!' I said, 'You just don't understand.'?"
Lois' first husband died after 45 years of marriage. She met her second husband at a traditional pickup spot: a cemetery.
"Not usually where you think of," she says with a laugh.
He was involved with the formation of the Western Reserve National Cemetery in Rittman, Ohio, and she was volunteering (still does, twice a week, mending flags and answering phones). They met the day the cemetery opened and were together for five years before he died in 2005.
Meanwhile, Lois and Freda live on. The relationship has survived because "we were compatible. We just had things in common to write about. We both enjoyed handcrafts."
The walls of Lois' house are covered with quilted hangings she has made and taken to shows.
"If it had been someone else, it might not have lasted as long."
Almost anyone else, probably. -- Akron Beacon Journal/TNS
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