Decades of deliveries

Long-distance friendships bloom from letters

Neat stacks of letters bound with ribbon cluttered the kitchen table and makeshift writing desk of 93-year-old Inez Landry.

Corresponding for 20 years with a pen pal in Australia, Landry has built a friendship almost solely through letter-writing from her kitchen in Donaldsonville.

Did she begin writing because she needed someone to talk to, or to broaden her world experience by befriending someone on the other side of the globe?

Neither really.

“I like to get letters back,” Landry said. “I guess the mailman thinks, ‘Who’s all this stuff from?’ I like to put my flag up, make sure the mailman doesn’t pass.”

The letters fill suitcases in her attic, orderly stacks with vivid blue air mail stamps.

“When I sell this old house, they will be so surprised (at the letters),” she said.

Written correspondence has been overtaken by faster, briefer forms of communication. Just 0.7 percent of mail is personal letters, according to the U.S. Post Office 2010 Household Diary Survey.

“All we get is that junk mail,” Landry said.

Email and social media have taken the place of the handwritten missive, but the old style of communication still appeals to Landry and others who have created lifelong friends through the mail.

When Allison Duhe, of Reserve, began writing a pen pal in November 1981, she had just finished high school and was obsessed with the British band Led Zeppelin. A television show called “Big Blue Marble” had a call for pen pals at the end of an episode, so she wrote in and requested a partner from England because it was her favorite rock group’s home. A few weeks later, she received a letter from Derby, England.

“We both liked rock music ... but that all phased out, and our friendship just grew,” said Duhe, a school secretary.

The pair already shared a name — but her pen pal is Alison with one L — and over three decades of writing, they have shared their working-class lives, career experiences, marriage and childbirth together. Alison in England even named her daughter in honor of Duhe, giving her the middle name Allison with two L’s.

“It’s a unique thing,” Duhe said. “I never thought it would last that long.”

In 1993, Duhe’s British friend and her husband came to visit Reserve. They went to Mardi Gras parades in LaPlace and New Orleans and were interviewed together for a local newspaper.

That inspired Duhe. She longed to travel, but thought she never could.

“I never thought we could do that traveling,” Duhe said. “I never thought we could afford it. But if you set your mind on it and save your money, it could happen.”

They visited Derby three years later and again in 2006.

Maintaining a pen pal has expanded Duhe’s world, but she cherishes the friendship they created over all.

“We really clicked,” Duhe said. “If I’m having a rough time in my life, I could just tell her. I don’t have to worry about it getting blabbered all over. A confidante. She’s the same with me. Their family may have problems, my family may, and we just share that.”

They trade pictures of their families and hometowns. Because Alison in England is an animal lover, Duhe will send pictures of the raccoons and animals that take up residence in her yard.

Every birthday, they trade presents, and every Christmas, they send packages for their families to open.

They correspond at least once every month, and Duhe plans to write to her friend as long as she can.

“I’m going as far as we can go,” she said. “It’s a friendship.”

In 1990, then just in her 70s, Landry began writing her Australian friend, Helen. A veterinarian who was living in Donaldsonville was writing to Helen, and Landry’s daughter encouraged her to write her, too.

Landry, a tiny, friendly woman who enjoys watching LSU baseball on television, putting together puzzles and sitting at her kitchen table to talk, is enamored with the beauty of her pen pal’s writing and her envelopes, which are often decorated with clouds or other images. They’re so pretty, she said, she hates to even open them.

“She’s been writing all those years, and she’s scratched out twice,” Landry said, holding a piece of stationery covered with cursive sentences. “Her letters are just beautiful.”

In her letters, Landry does not confess hardships or confide in her pen pal. She just wants to brighten someone else’s day.

“I never tell them anything sad,” she said. “I write little jokes, so they never really know anything about my troubles.”

Helen addresses her as “Nezzy,” and tells her about her life Down Under.

At 93, Landry wants to keep writing Helen as long as she can. She’s in good health, taking only a couple of “little blood pressure pills” each day. Her handwriting isn’t what it once was though.

So she plans to write “as long as I can make out,” she said. “I just hope she forgives me. She’ll be glad to hear from me.”