From Australia to Scotland, penpals celebrate 70 years of friendship on opposite sides of the world

January 24, 2021
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Connecting with the people we love from a distance is something many of us have had to adjust to in 2020, but it is something Jill Stretton has been doing for most of her life.

In 1950, 12-year-old Jill Stretton (then Frankling) started writing to a girl in Scotland, called Cathie Alexander (then MacIntosh), whose address had been given to her by a family friend who had returned from Scotland.

From their correspondence grew a friendship that has endured a lifetime.

“She is just like one of the family,” Ms Stretton said.

The two penpals have only met three times — in 1982, 1988 and 2000 — but their correspondence has continued uninterrupted through schooling, marriage, parenthood, joy and loss.

“Never any gaps, never,” Ms Stretton said.

“To this day I still don’t know how my daughter told her — I have got no idea because it was my daughter’s father that died too.”

Forging a friendship, slowly

As a schoolgirl, Jill Stretton had a short-lived correspondence with a pen pal in Greece but said she and Cathie Alexander “just clicked” right from the start.

“And then it depends whether she answered it straight away, but another six weeks for hers to get back to me.”

As schoolgirls, the pair wrote of school and younger siblings and would send letters with a small gift like a handkerchief tucked inside.

As adults, the pair shared news of their respective nuptials via post with photos of their weddings enclosed in letters.

The family heirlooms of both women include treasured gifts from each other such as a delicate shawl sent from Scotland to mark the birth of Ms Stretton’s first daughter in the 1970’s, also recently used to swaddle her first great-grandchild.

When the pair finally met in 1982 after three decades of correspondence, Ms Stretton said they were as close as sisters.

“We have a similar outlook to life in general,” Ms Alexander said.

Technology, no substitute for handwritten letters

As communication technology developed Ms Stretton said the pair tried using video calls but didn’t really take to it.

She said they had started to use email or just send postcards as the cost of postage increased.

“It is the parcels — Christmas parcel are just horrendous, the letters aren’t too bad,” Ms Stretton said.

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