Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Radel: Pen pals finally meet

For 33 years, Zona Whyte of Auckland, New Zealand, and Cheryl Tallman of Westwood exchanged letters from opposite ends of the world.

The pen pals finally met this month at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. They were standing on opposite ends of an escalator.

"I looked up and there was Cheryl," Zona said. "I cried out: 'That's her! There she is!'

"That escalator couldn't go up fast enough."

Zona spoke with a lilting accent carrying overtones of Scottish, English and Australian dialects. Words such as "escalator" came out sounding like eeeeescalator.

"When we saw each other, we started crying like babies," Cheryl said in a lake-dweller's accent showing she grew up near Cleveland in Amherst, Ohio.

The pen pals sat side-by-side in Cheryl's living room. Zona and Cheryl reminisced and planned how to spend their 15-day vacation together.

Zona Whyte (left) from New Zealand and Cheryl Tallman from Westwood have been penpals for 33 years.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
Their respective husbands, Peter and Mark, quietly and wisely let their wives have center stage.

Wise is the married man who knows when to keep quiet. Especially when their spouses have known each other for 33 years, have only talked on the phone three times and are meeting for the first time.

Emotions flowed freely for the pen pals. At times, they wiped tears from their eyes and finished each other's sentences. At other times, they giggled like the schoolgirls they were when they began this long-running correspondence and enduring friendship as they approached their 13th birthdays.

Both remembered receiving their first letters in the mail. That was pre-Internet. Now, they exchange e-mail and the postman-delivered variety.

Zona recalled how thrilled she was when she saw an envelope with American stamps.

Cheryl still has the label bearing Zona's name and address with this stern reminder: "This is not just a name. It is a girl in a country from abroad who wants to be a pen pal and is waiting to hear from you."

They were separated by 8,461 miles and 16 time zones. But they weren't that far apart.

"We soon realized we were the same sort of person," Zona noted.

They listed their similarities. Sometimes in unison.

Strong-willed. Parochial-school students. Habitual letter-writers. Concertgoers. Same tastes in music.

Both admitted - while their husbands smirked - to buying the LP version of The Best of Bread.

Both liked school. And never left.

Cheryl teaches seventh- and eighth-grade math at Sycamore Junior High.

Zona is the librarian at St. Dominic's, the high school she attended when she was Zona McCarthy and received her first letter from an American named Cheryl Lehman.

Zona always dreamed of visiting the States and meeting Cheryl.

"But I never really thought I would get here," she said patting the arm of her chair. "America is the other side of the world. And we have three kids - Nicola, Paula and Vincent. So you need to save your money for them."

But then her mother died in 2001 and her house was sold. Zona had some extra money. Peter asked what she wanted to do with it.

"Put enough away to go to America," she told him.

He asked where she wanted to go in the United States.

"To meet Cheryl," she replied.

"It's an age thing," Zona explained.

"When you start losing people, you start to think: Life's short. If you're going to do something, take the bull by the horns and do it. My mother would be so happy that Cheryl and I finally got together."

As Zona made plans for her trip, she took requests for American delicacies. Almond Joy bars and boxes of Cheerios topped the list.

She also found many people wondering, "How have you kept at this for so long?"

Even Peter asked Zona that question, adding, "What do you two find to write about?"

But that question is a guy thing. Being a pen pal isn't.

In all the years Zona and Cheryl have written to each other, Mark and Peter have exchanged but one e-mail.

"I sent him five lines," Mark said. "He sent back two."

Their wives could not stop at two lines or 200.

"What we write about is important, and we do go on," Zona noted. "But it is not always earth-shattering."

Although it can be. When her mother died, Zona shared things with Cheryl that she "couldn't tell anyone else. With her, I didn't feel I had to put on my brave face."

Their long-distance friendship, Cheryl said, has been continuously strengthened by "sharing the everyday things in our lives."

"When we were teen-agers, we'd complain about how our parents were driving us crazy. Today we talk about our jobs and how lucky we are to have found and held onto the men we married."

Cheryl pulled out a letter from Zona dated March 13, 1974. Zona wrote about taking a break from studying:

"I have kept busy doing the housework. Oh, to be a housewife."

The pen pals laughed in unison.

"Now," Zona said, "I'd write, 'Oh, not to be a housewife."

During a break in their laughter, Cheryl and Zona tried to describe how comfortable they feel after finally being in the same room together after 33 years and hundreds of letters.

Like old friends? Long-lost cousins?

"Much closer than that," Cheryl declared.

Zona folded her hands in her lap. "I know," she said and looked at Cheryl.

"It feels like home."


Cliff Radel, a Cincinnati native, writes about the people, places and traditions defining his hometown. E-mail cradel@enquirer.com.

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Radel: Pen pals finally meet

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