Lifetime pen pals reflect on lost art of letter writing
By Christine Green
Email, text and video chats are all the rage today. But there was a time when writing a letter was a special, sacred ritual.
Some stationery, a roll of stamps, and a good sharp pencil was all one needed to reach out and connect with someone outside of their own life. Letter writing was the tool that helped forge a 49-year friendship between Vivian Begay of Kirtland, New Mexico, and Cindy Buddle Hare of Brockport.
It all started in 1971 when third-grade teacher Ruth Rath read an article in a local newspaper about a Rochester-area teacher who had taught at the Wide Ruins Community School in Wide Ruins, Arizona.
Wide Ruins is a chapter of the Navajo Nation and the school has dormitories where students board during the week. Rath was teaching Native American history to third graders at the Barclay Elementary School in Brockport at the time and felt her students could learn from writing to the Navajo Nation children at Wide Ruins.
“I considered myself an enrichment teacher my whole life. I wanted to make learning real for children. I wanted them to care,” she said.
Rath connected with Wide Ruins Community School and started a pen pal project with one of their grade school teachers. She and her counterpart in Arizona felt that writing letters would help her students improve their cursive writing as well as help them learn about children growing up in a very different environment than what they knew themselves.
“I remember the teacher said that we got some mail. He brought up a huge yellow envelope, and he took out a bunch of letters from another school,” said Begay.
She remembered having time in class to write to her new pen pal, Cindy Hare, who lived in faraway New York. Time passed and Hare and Begay kept up the writing through grammar school and junior high.
“I enjoyed getting her letters,” said Hare. “I remember laying on my bed and you know, writing letters and mailing it. You would have to wait maybe a couple of months before you get something. So it was very exciting.”
They would share details of everyday life, swap secrets, and offer comfort and support to each other.
“She feels like a sister to me. I already had two sisters and it just seems like she’s another sister because I know her secrets and she knows mine,” said Hare with a thoughtful smile.
As they got a little older, life got busier and the letters slowed a bit. Begay moved out of Wide Ruins in the mid-1970s and attended school closer to her family’s home. Both girls went through the normal growing pains of childhood, then adolescence, and then the teen years.
“There was a time in high school when we didn’t write as much because you know, stuff’s going on and everybody’s busy,” said Hare.
Busy or not they still made time to write when they could and Rath was proud of Hare’s efforts after that year in her class.
“They [the Wide Ruins students] put their heart into writing those letters. And then my students did the same and several of my students kept writing the next year. But Cindy always told me she did and she just kept it up. I was so proud of her that she put her heart into it,” Rath noted.
Always in touch
While the pace of their writing may have slowed, the letters never stopped completely. Some years there would only be a Christmas card or a birthday message. But the next year more letters would come. The girls became women, they got married and had babies. Sometimes a letter was just a quick note before a child’s soccer game or a little card with a school picture. But those letters never completely ceased.
In 1998 —27 years since they first started writing —they discussed meeting up with each other. Up until then they hadn’t even talked on the phone. After the initial phone call and a few more letters, they met up in June of 1999, families in tow.
It was a special time for them that summer. The friends saw their children play together and their husbands talk to each other. Most importantly, they got to sit together face-to-face for the very first time.
“We met in Branson, Missouri,” remembered Begay. “And we stayed there for several days. We all stayed in one condo and we just did a lot of things together. And that was the only time we met. And then after that, we continued writing. Then finally Facebook came along and we started contacting and connecting on Facebook again.”
Facebook expanded their friendship in a novel way. They could easily and instantly share pictures and comment on each other’s posts. But the letters didn’t stop, not completely. They still wrote to each other, especially during the holidays.
When 55 Plus magazine reached out to them about this story, they decided it was once again time for a phone chat.
“The other night Cindy called me and asked me about this interview and we talked on the phone for almost four hours,” said Begay. She checked her cell phone to make a note of the exact time they talked. “Yeah, we talked for exactly three hours and 45 minutes.”
Both Begay and Hare are busy working women these days. Hare, 57, has been a hair stylist for 38 years. She has a full-service salon (Hair by Hare) attached to her home. She also cuts and styles hair for residents at Brockport’s Elderwood Nursing home and at Monroe Community Hospital. She doesn’t have a lot of extra time for hobbies and travel since she works 12 hours a day, six days a week, but she always squeezes in family time with her husband, kids and granddaughter.
“Family is everything,” said Hare.
It’s everything to Begay, too, who has an equally busy life. Begay, 58, works at the San Juan Generating Station, a power plant in New Mexico. After work, though, there isn’t much down time.
“We have horses that my son and husband ride to round up cattle. We do a lot of that during the warmer months. There’s no free time for me. We are always doing something. It takes two hours to get to the summer camp due to a rocky road up the mountains. That’s where our cows, sheep, and other horses graze for the summer. We all pitch in to care for them. While up on the mountain, we start hauling firewood for my in-laws and ourselves to prepare for the winter months. In between, we all love to go camping and fishing.
“My husband and I love to go sightseeing when we get the time. We are a very tight family. Our adult children are always there, helping with whatever we need done. But I love to sew quilts and crochet. Sometimes I’ll take my crocheting with me when we go out.”
Hare and Begay hope they can meet up again soon, perhaps this summer in Niagara Falls.
Rath is 77 and resides in Hamlin. Knowing that Begay and Hare are still close brings her great joy.
“Well, it makes my heart glow warm you know when I hear stuff like that because that’s what I had hoped. And even the students who didn’t continue writing, I think they would remember it,” she said.