Victoria Ryczak remembers being lonely as a 12-year-old in 1950. She lived near Amsterdam, Sask., about 322 kilometres east of Saskatoon, on an isolated farm.
Then one day, her father brought home an issue of the Winnipeg Free Press that had an ad from an Alberta girl looking for a pen pal. Ryczak decided to give it a try.
The two corresponded for a while, until the Alberta girl saw an ad for a pen pal she thought would be a better fit for Ryczak. She connected Ryczak with Kathleen Wallace, who lived in Ontario.
Ryczak and Wallace shared a special connection.
"We were born on June 2, 1938, the same day, the same age," said Ryczak, 82. "That's why I say we're twins. So maybe that had a lot to do with the way we connected."
After 70 years of correspondence, Ryczak lost her friend last month. She hopes their story might inspire others to write letters across borders, as a way of combatting loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kathleen, she was like a confidante. We talk about the trials and tribulations. - Victoria Ryczak
When Ryczak started writing with Wallace, she couldn't believe how much the two had in common. They were both left-handed, lived on farms, and had the same ideas, family values and positive attitudes. They wrote about school and anything else that came to mind.
"Kathleen, she was like a confidante. We talk about the trials and tribulations," Ryczak said. "What a wonderful person she was and how much she gave of herself to everybody."
The letters became few and far between as the two grew older, were married and started their families, but they never lost touch. In 1967, Ryczak had the chance to take some local students to the Montreal Expo and stopped by Ottawa to meet Wallace in person.
The years went by with the two calling and writing from their own homes. Ryczak's husband died and she started working as a caterer. Wallace's family continued to grow. At age 65, they decided it was time to see each other again. Wallace invited Ryczak to her daughter's wedding.
"I jumped at the chance," Ryczak said. "I hadn't seen them for a long time. So I'm walking around the airport and I thought, 'Gee, will I be able to find them?' But then I heard Kathleen speak and I recognized her voice and I turned around. Here she was."
Ryczak stayed for an entire month. She then went back again for Wallace's 50th wedding anniversary. Soon after that celebration, Wallace's husband had a stroke and died.
Throughout the years, the two friends tried to arrange a visit to Saskatchewan for Wallace, but with her husband gone and a farm full of animals to tend to, it wasn't possible.
"She always said she was going to come and visit me. That's my only regret, that she never came to see Saskatchewan," Ryczak said.
2021 starts off with difficult news
During the pandemic, the friends talked more often than before. Then something changed in January.
After not hearing from Wallace for 10 days, Ryczak got a call from Wallace's daughter. Wallace had suffered a stroke and was in palliative care.
"I was really shocked. I couldn't stop crying. And that's one thing, I never cry," Ryczak said. "But when she got that stroke I couldn't stop crying."
Wallace died on Feb. 22, 2021.
Ryczak said Wallace phoned her the Friday before that.
"She said, 'I'm dying and I love you, Victoria.' I couldn't believe she said that, and I said, 'No, you're not. You still need to come to visit me.'" Ryczak said.
"I really thought that she was going to get better."
Ryczak said the past year has been tough. She lost other friends as well, but Wallace's death was incredibly difficult.
"To me, it's going to be devastating," she said. "Every so often you pick up the phone and talk and there won't be anybody to talk to anymore."
How letters can connect us
Ryczak said that in these days of pandemic and isolation, more people should consider writing or talking to others, especially across provincial borders.
"When you contact somebody, you should be yourself," Ryczak said. "You should be positive and you should understand other people's feelings, not only your own."
Erica Dyck, a University of Saskatchewan history professor that has studied historic letter writing, said letters can be effective in combating isolation.
"Letter writing requires a kind of attention. It's a bit formal, but it's also quite an intimate process," she said.
Dyck said a recent Canada Post initiative to deliver Canadians 13 million postcards that can then be mailed for free is a wonderful opportunity to connect with others. Dyck said people should write about mundane details that they may not think are interested but might actually help others feel connected.
"The more we can break down those barriers of isolation and remind people that we're thinking of them and connecting with them even when we can't physically be together, I think these are really important social coping mechanisms that will help us proceed beyond COVID."
Ryczak said she can't believe where the time went with Wallace. What started as two 12-year-old girls wanting pen pals bloomed into a lifelong friendship.
"Hopefully she's in peace," Ryczak said. "It was a privilege to be her friend."