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Friends bound by ink

Greenfield, Hawaiian women pen pals for life

Recorder/Paul Franz
Judy Polito of California and Sandy Thomas of Greenfield have been pen pals since 1965.

Recorder/Paul Franz Judy Polito of California and Sandy Thomas of Greenfield have been pen pals since 1965. Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — Sandy Thomas sits on the couch in her Crescent Street living room, laughing and talking about old times, while snuggled up with her dear friend Judith Polito.

The difference between their 48 years of “old times” and most other people’s is that most of theirs have happened on paper.

Thomas and Polito, who now lives in California and was staying with Thomas in Greenfield this week, became pen pals when both of the now 60-year-old women were in eighth grade.

They’ve grown up together. They’ve been through high school, first loves, college, dating, marriage, divorce, and now a grandchild — and they never met each other until 17 years after their first letter was exchanged.

Thomas was in junior high in a school in Pennsylvania — she moved to Greenfield 35 years ago — and Polito was in a school in Hawaii.

Neither woman remembers how or why, but their teachers were friends and exchanged class lists.

“My teacher asked those of us who wanted a pen pal to raise our hands,” said Polito. “I did, and she gave me Sandy’s name and contact information. It was purely (happenstance).”

Polito, in her first letter to Thomas dated March 16, 1965, told her new pen pal that she wanted to be a good pen pal and told her about a couple of others she had in Texas and North Carolina. Those relationships never went anywhere for Polito.

She told Thomas about her family, her dog and two cats, and asked if Thomas was in any clubs.

Polito told Thomas about the school she was attending, the place she was living and asked that they send pictures of themselves.

She signed that first letter: “Good-bye. Love, Judith. ALOHA.”

“That was the beginning of a beautiful and cherished friendship,” said Thomas, who has been writing to Polito since and has only seen her six times and only emailed and called her a handful of times over the years.

Their birthdays are a week apart — Thomas’ is Dec. 14 and Polito’s is Dec. 8.

The first time they met was at Thomas’ parents’ home in Pennsylvania. Thomas’ family is also very close with Polito, who said Thomas’ family took a trip to Hawaii a few years before the girls met.

“I got to meet her mom and dad and her minister before I met her,” said Polito. “They asked me to come to the hotel where they were staying. They said they had a surprise for me.”

When Polito got there, Thomas was on the phone.

“Neither one of us knew they were doing that, so we cried through the entire call,” said Thomas.

The first time the two women met, Polito got off the plane wearing the same sandals Thomas was wearing and they were both wearing wooden bracelets.

Over the years they learned that each collected heart-shaped rocks.

All, Thomas said, nice coincidences.

Thomas said when she was a kid she thought having a pen pal was just a cool, nice thing. As an adult, she said it is “truly a blessing.”

They both said the reason it works for them is because of their personalities.

“We’re both pretty persistent,” said Thomas.

She said that there were some years when they only heard from each other once or twice, but they never let it go any longer. She said when it did go that long between letters, it was because life got in the way.

The women have saved their letters and all that came with them — pressed leaves and flowers, drawings and pictures.

When Thomas’ daughter Kimberly Hake, who is now 31, was born, Polito sent her a tiny shirt from Hawaii.

On Tuesday, Hake visited her mother and Polito, who had her 23-year-old daughter Mikella with her. Thomas’ daughter had her 15-month-old daughter Harper with her. The toddler was wearing the shirt Polito had given so many years ago.

Thomas said having a friend in Hawaii when she was young expanded her world.

“It felt exotic in the early days, having a friend all the way in Hawaii,” she said. “Now, it just feels right.”

Thomas said she has found it is actually more personal and intimate getting to know someone through writing.

“There’s a yearning to meet them and the excitement when you finally do,” she said. “You don’t take things for granted.”

Both have sworn off Facebook as a means of communicating, fearing it will somehow change the relationship they have now.

“Our relationship is on paper,” said Polito.

“There’s something about getting a letter or card in the mail — it’s so special,” said Thomas. “It’s not the same as email or following someone on Facebook. It’s exciting to wait for it and finally open the box one day to find it there. I wish kids were still doing this today.”

Not long after Thomas made that comment, the two looked at each other, got all giddy and excited, and decided they would both approach an eighth-grade teacher in Greenfield and Kona in hopes they could start a pen pal program.

“We could supply pens and stationery and make up little pen pal packets,” said Polito. “The eighth-grade teachers could supply the names and contact information to every kid that wants to participate.”

The women said children can learn a lot about other parts of the world, other cultures, and other people, so writing letters can be a good learning tool.

“Writing a letter is like offering a window into your life and the lives of those around you like no other form of communication can,” said Thomas. “You are a lot more thoughtful and you choose your words more carefully when you write. You can be more vulnerable and you tend to share more. You aren’t so rushed.”

Both women tried to hold back their happy tears, to no avail, on Tuesday and both said the visit to Greenfield this week gave them an opportunity they haven’t had often over the years — to touch and hug and see each other’s faces. But, they said even that doesn’t take the place of their precious letters.

“We’ll write until we’re dead,” said Thomas.

“I’m taking my pen with me,” joked Polito.

While they continued talking about their friendship, Thomas’ daughter laughed and talked in the kitchen with Polito’s daughter.

“Maybe we can get them to start writing,” said Polito. “Wouldn’t that be something if they became pen pals?”

“And it would be lovely if they developed the kind of friendship we have — and all through the written word,” said Thomas.

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