The Evolution of a 20-Year Pen-Pal Friendship

“I saw her as who I would have been if I grew up on a farm in Apple Canyon Lake. And I think she saw me as the same thing, but reversed.”

Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with a pair of pen pals who have been in touch for more than 20 years, ever since they met one summer when one girl's family was on vacation. They discuss how their correspondence evolved from snail mail to social media, the dry spells when they didn't write much, and how their letters served as windows into their very different upbringings.

The Friends

Jacquie Holland, 29, a financial analyst in Fort Collins, Colorado
Allison Lantero, 29, a law student at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: Take me back to the very beginning. Did you guys meet each other in real life first? Or were you pen pals from the start?

Jacquie Holland: We met IRL. Allison’s grandparents and my grandparents were friends. I think they met in church, and then all of our uncles became friends. I come from a dairy-farming family in northwestern Illinois, and Allison's family was from the western Chicago suburbs. I met Allison either the summer after first grade or second grade when she was visiting her grandparents' lake house. We saw her family in church, and her dad asked my dad if they could come out to our farm.

Beck: Do you guys remember that first visit to the farm?

Allison Lantero: I remember it very vividly, because I had never been to a farm before. They showed us the cows and the milking machines and other stuff. Then when I found out that they had a daughter my age, I was so excited. Jacquie and I were best friends the rest of the day, and we were like, “We should write to each other. We should be pen pals.” And that's what we did.

Beck: Did you guys hang out in person the rest of that summer?

Allison: We would see each other on and off, because my family didn't spend the whole summer there. Whenever I was up there, I would ask my parents, “Can we go see Jacquie? Can we go to the farm?” Sometimes she would come out to the lake house and hang out on the beach or go tubing. But then during the school year, we didn't really go up to the lake, so that was when we started writing letters.

Allison Lantero (left) and Jacquie Holland (right) in 2003. Courtesy of Allison Lantero.

Beck: Did it begin with snail mail? Whose idea was it?

Jacquie: Yes, it was snail mail probably until we were in high school.

Allison: I think that’s about right. I don’t remember whose idea it was. I think it was both of our idea. I just remember we were making s’mores the very first day we met, and we were just like, “I don’t have a pen pal. Do you want to be my pen pal?” And the rest is history.

Jacquie: I think our parents really encouraged it too.

Beck: Do you have your old letters? Do you remember what you used to write about in the early days?

Allison: Yes. I have 95 percent of all the letters Jacquie sent to me. Number one, I was so jealous because she had better handwriting than I did. It was so much easier to read her letters. But number two, she would always use these cool gel pens and stickers and stuff. My letters, I felt, never quite matched that.

Jacquie: I was always so excited to get Allison’s letters because she had beautiful stationery. I don’t think I have the letters anymore, but I remember her talking about the different activities she was doing, like being in plays, and it just seemed like she lived this super adventurous and really sophisticated life that fascinated me. I remember being able to tell by her letters how sharp she was. She was very smart, very observant, and we always shared a lot of the same values. That always seemed apparent in those letters, somehow.

Beck: What values?

Jacquie: We were very close with our families, worked hard, but we’re also really curious about all of the other things going on in the world, outside of our respective spheres. And she’s just nice.

Allison: Well, thanks. I would agree with all of that, and especially with being interested in things that were out of our spheres. That’s, I think, part of the reason we became pen pals. What I loved about Jacquie’s letters was hearing about the new calves that were born and what her jobs were like on the farm. All this is stuff that I had absolutely zero experience with.

Beck: It’s almost like a city mouse, country mouse pen-pal friendship.

Allison: Yeah, in some ways it definitely was.

Beck: What percentage of your friendship over the years would you say was conducted as pen pals versus in person?

Allison: I would say 80 or 90 percent of it was as pen pals. But we did see each other in the summers. There was actually one summer, I want to say it was in sixth grade, that Jacquie came down to Chicago and stayed with my family a couple of days. We got to hang out in person for a nice chunk of time. We went to Navy Pier. I think we went to the mall one day. We went to Claire’s, and I only remember because I think I have a picture of us in Claire's for some reason.

A stack of old letters from the pen pals. Courtesy of Allison Lantero.

Jacquie: We went to that pottery studio—we biked there and biked back.

Allison: Oh my God, I totally forgot that.

Jacquie: They gave us the cups, and then we painted them.

Beck: You said it was mostly letters until high school.

Jacquie: I think we emailed a little bit in high school.

Allison: Jacquie, did you have a screen name? Did we ever IM?

Jacquie: I don’t think so. I didn’t have AOL until I went to college. Somehow in rural Illinois we only used MSN.

Allison: Yeah, we stuck to emails.

Beck: When and why did you move to other mediums for keeping in touch? Do you still write letters?

Allison: No, we haven’t done snail mail for a while.

Jacquie: I live out in Colorado now, but I still get the hometown newspaper delivered out here. Allison’s sister’s marriage-license announcement was in the local paper. So I saved the paper and wrote them a little note about how my family was doing and sent it back to them via snail mail. But it was probably early high school, the last time that we exchanged snail-mail letters. I think as we got older and there was Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat, it just became easier to communicate that way.

Allison: But our families would send each other Christmas cards anyway. So we would just include a little note to each other. I think that helped keep the snail mail up a little bit.

Beck: Do you feel like your friendship changed as it moved from medium to medium, from letters to emails to Facebook?

Allison: This is a good question. We definitely use a lot more mediums today than we did back in the day. We have Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and we text. So we hear from each other a lot more frequently. We were decent pen pals, but I would say we wrote maybe once a month, or once every two months. Whereas now I have an idea of what Jacquie did yesterday.

Jacquie: Our messages might not be as long as those letters were, but they’re more current. They’re more real time.

Allison: For example, my family was up at my grandparents’ lake house a month ago, and we ran into Jacquie’s parents at the bar. So I texted Jacquie and was like, “Guess what? I’m with your parents right now.” That’s something we never could have done 15 years ago.

Beck: How regularly have you guys been in touch over the 20 years you’ve known each other? Were there any periods when you drifted apart and came back together?

Allison: There were definitely periods where we got too busy to write letters. We never cut off communication or anything, but it definitely ebbed and flowed, and Jacquie was much better at writing than I was. I think she wrote me two letters for every one I sent.

Jacquie: Looking back, I might have been a little bit bored.

Beck: How so?

Jacquie: Oh, I don’t know—I lived in rural Illinois. We lived and worked on that farm, so we didn’t always get to go to friends’ houses. So it was a really big deal when I got to go hang out with Allison’s family at their house for a few days. And I’ve always liked writing letters. To me, there is nothing better as a kid than getting a letter in the mail addressed to you.

But I’d say that in late high school, and then in college, we were both busy figuring out our futures. So we didn’t keep in contact as much. But I always still held Allison in very high esteem, even if we weren’t talking.

Allison: I totally agree. When I first got Facebook, Jacquie was one of the first people I tried to look up. She was always a close friend, even when we weren’t talking every few weeks.

Allison (left) and Jacquie (right) reunited in Colorado recently. Courtesy of Allison Lantero.

Beck: It’s interesting to me when you have someone who’s a really close friend and who you’re in touch with a lot, but it’s mostly text based. You’re not exactly sharing your lives, because you don’t see each other and make memories that often. It’s more that you’re updating each other about your separate lives. Have you found that to be a barrier to closeness? Or is there an advantage to having someone filling that role in your life?

Jacquie: I think what was unique with us was that we also had that family history of friendship. So updates were always a big deal, since we didn't see each other, but we had so many more conversations in between the updates. I’ve always felt that there’s been a lot of shared values, shared sentiments, even across the distance. And now we can see a lot of those updates via Facebook, via Instagram. And when we do talk, I feel like it enables us to have deeper conversations from the get-go. Because we check out each other’s social-media pages, so we have an idea of what’s going on. I think it gives room for more meaningful conversations when they do happen.

Allison: Jacquie and I are both the oldest sibling. I’m the oldest of four, and she’s the oldest of five. Like she was saying about shared values, we had that shared sense of responsibility for our siblings. At least for me, I kind of saw Jacquie as who I would have been or what my life would have been like if I grew up on a farm in Apple Canyon Lake. Jacquie, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think she saw me as the same thing, but reversed.

Jacquie: Yes.

Allison: It’s just been really nice to be able to see how her life has gone, and what my life could have been like if I had been born into different circumstances.

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