From New Brunswick, with love: Pen pals have stayed in touch for 50 years

·6 min read
Kathy Reeder, left, and Gayel Child in 1970, when their first pen-pal exchange launched a lifelong friendship. (Submitted by Gayel Child - image credit)
Kathy Reeder, left, and Gayel Child in 1970, when their first pen-pal exchange launched a lifelong friendship. (Submitted by Gayel Child - image credit)

It all started in 1970 with a handwritten letter.

Kathy Reeder had a friend who had a pen pal in New Zealand. She decided she wanted one too.

There's nothing unusual about that. Many of us had pen pals when we were kids. You'd exchange a few letters with someone who lived far away, and after a while you'd run out of things to say and the letters would peter out.

It's hard to maintain a friendship with someone you've never met, and probably never will.

But that's not how it worked out for Reeder and Gayel Child.

In the 50 years after that initial handwritten letter — neither can remember who wrote the first one — the women forged a lifelong bond, seeing each other through births and deaths, triumphs and tragedies.

When Reeder was facing a series of surgeries in the 1990s, Child flew 35 hours to pay a surprise visit to cheer her up.

When Child was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, Reeder walked the Confederation Bridge as a fundraiser.

Reeder lives in Riverview, N.B. Child lives in Feilding, New Zealand.

They could hardly be farther apart. And yet they couldn't be closer.

Lots of letters, then they lost touch

Reeder still remembers the early days of their pen pal friendship.

Back then, Reeder and Child were in Grade 6 and wrote to each other about "music, boys, clothes and stuff."

This continued through high school, and eventually, the letters started drifting off, then stopped completely.

Reeder graduated from high school, went into nursing, moved out of her childhood home in Havelock, got married. Then one day, her parents came to visit and brought her a letter that had been delivered to their home.

"When I saw the handwriting, I just knew," Reeder said.

After several years and from more than 15,000 kilometres away, her old pen pal was reaching out to say hello.

Submitted by Gayel Child
Submitted by Gayel Child

By that time, Child had two young children.

"I just thought of Kathy one day and wondered what she was doing," she said. "I had remembered her address so I thought, 'Why not?'"

They never lost touch again.

They started writing regularly, the teenage topics replaced by talk of marriages, husbands, families and work.

"After I would send her a letter I would jot down notes for the next one with things we had been doing," Child said.

Eventually, letters weren't enough to hold everything they had to talk about.

One day, Child said, "I said to my husband, Paul, 'I wonder what she sounds like?' So I decided to call her."

Back in those days, calling long distance was expensive, so it was "a big deal," she said.

That first time they spoke, Child said, "Kathy was very quiet. Probably tried to get around [my] accent."

Reeder laughs at the memory of that phone call.

It was Christmas, the line was bad, and she was "very, very surprised" to hear from her faraway friend.

And yes, she admits, she was feeling a little shy.

"As Gayel would say, we're as different as chalk and cheese."

Submitted by Gayel Child
Submitted by Gayel Child

'I might go to Canada and meet Kathy'

The friendship ascended to another level when they finally met in 1990.

Child had lost an eye in an accident and received compensation from the New Zealand government.

She and her husband were renovating their home and their kids were still young. There were so many things to put the money toward.

But Child's husband was adamant: He wanted her to do something for herself.

"I jokingly said, 'I might go to Canada and meet Kathy,'" Child said. "His reply was immediate. He said, 'That is what you will do.'"

She planned her trip for that August, and at that point, "our letters really changed," Reeder said.

"They got very personal, about … kids and feelings and family and stuff."

Child admits she worried a bit after she'd booked the trip, a gruelling trek with stops in Auckland, Fiji, Vancouver, Ottawa, Halifax and, finally, Moncton.

"As I was walking to the plane [in New Zealand], I thought 'What have I done?' I am going to a place I have never been before to someone I had never met before," she said.

She soon realized she needn't have worried.

"We had a wonderful time meeting family, sightseeing, shopping. So many people wanted to say hello, and everywhere we went, I was fed. I have so many wonderful memories."

After that, Child visited Reeder regularly, sometimes with her family, sometimes on her own, and always, once the visit was over, their letters would resume crossing the globe.

Over the years, the handwritten missives stopped and emails took their place, and they were in touch even more often.

"We just got to know each other so well, we knew everything that was going on with the families," Reeder said.

Submitted by Gayel Child
Submitted by Gayel Child

When you become this close, you feel each other's joy like it's your own. You feel each other's pain, too. Reeder and Child have had plenty of both, and have been there for each other through it all.

One day, in 1999, Reeder's family got a phone call from Child.

It was Christmas morning, but the news wasn't joyous.

Child's son Gerard, a pilot, had died in a crash when his plane suffered a mechanical failure. He was just 21.

She and Reeder spoke for a long time that day, both of them devastated by the tragedy. The next day, and every day after that, for weeks on end, Child woke up to an emailed message from Reeder.

"That note from Kathy each morning was precious," she said. "Just to say 'We are here for you and thinking of you.'"

Six years later, Child learned she had breast cancer.

Reeder decided to walk the Confederation Bridge in a Terry Fox Marathon of Hope fundraiser for her friend. She carried a sign saying "I'm walking for my pen pal Gayel from New Zealand," and sent Child photos along the way.

"When I got to the other side, I held the sign up and said, 'Gayel, I did it,'" Reeder said.

Earlier this year, Reeder, a nurse at the Moncton Hospital, learned that she, too, had breast cancer and would have to undergo a double mastectomy.

When Child heard the news, she was gutted.

"I cried for hours," she said.

Submitted by Gayel Child
Submitted by Gayel Child

Caring, chemistry and sheer willpower

A lifelong friendship is a special thing. A lifelong friendship when the friends live on opposite sides of the globe is next-level special, an ethereal formula of caring, chemistry and willpower.

"It has taken sheer determination to be able to do this," Child said. "You have to work at it, take the good times with the bad and the sad."

For both women, it feels like it was meant to be.

"There was just something about Gayel that drew me in, I really don't know how to put into words," Reeder said.

Child agrees, and said she sensed Reeder's innate kindness early on.

"She's a very compassionate soul, and she listens very carefully," she said.

Both know that they can always count on each other, even though they are separated by thousands of miles and, now, a pandemic.

Not being able to be here to support her friend through surgery this past summer was tough for Child.

But they have stayed in touch, she said.

"We always will."

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