In 1954, when I was nine years old and going to elementary school in North Vancouver, I began writing to Karlyn Edwards, a girl my age who lived in Kandos, a rural community in New South Wales, Australia. Last December, more than 50 years later, I flew to Sydney to visit her, her son and daughter, and her son’s two-year-old, Penelope.
As Karlyn (now Robinson) recalls, her teacher in Kandos - population 1,000 - had suggested pupils should try to find pen friends, perhaps in Canada. This would not only help their writing and composition skills, it would give them an idea of the larger world.
Somehow, Karlyn’s request for a pen pal turned up in *The Province*, where my mother pointed it out to me. I had already had a couple of pen pals - a boy in the Gold Coast, Africa, who wrote to me about the momentous changes as that country gained its independence and became Ghana; and a girl in Broken Bow, Nebraska. But for some reason, as I lost touch with these others, Karlyn and I kept writing to each other.
Who knows what we found to write about - none of our letters remain. But write we did, and the sight of an Australian stamp on a letter arriving at my home in North Vancouver was just as exciting for me as it was for her to find a letter from Canada in her post-box.
It’s hard to imagine now, in the days of cheap jet travel and the World Wide Web, but in the 1950s, Australians were extremely isolated. Five weeks by ship from England - still thought of as the “mother country” - Australia was an English-speaking outpost whose closest neighbours were Asian.
As Karlyn tells it, to her I was the epitome of glamour. While her father laboured in a coal mine and sheared sheep for a living, mine had a white-collar job and travelled regularly to Eastern Canada on business. We went to California and Arizona for holidays - I had even been to Disneyland. She still has my postcards, sent from exotic destinations such as San Francisco and Death Valley, in a shoebox.
On the other hand, I envied her for having a sister. I was an only child and always longed for a sibling.
At some point, according to Karlyn, I sent her a subscription to what was then my favourite magazine, *Seventeen*, a compendium of all the things a teenaged girl should know about what to wear and how to comport herself at the high school dance.
I was a studious child, and usually had my nose in a book. Karlyn, on the other hand, was not a scholar and played a mean game of tennis. She says now, that she was just waiting until she finished school, so she could leave Kandos. I was destined for university - my mother’s dream for me. At 17, off to my first year at UBC, I informed my pen pal that I would be far too busy to write to her in future and wished her all the best.
No, it wasn’t kind of me, but Karlyn apparently took it in stride. She was off to Sydney, some 500 kilometres east of Kandos, to train as a nurse and then - along with so many young Australian women and men of her generation - to travel. Her first stop would be the United Kingdom.
Both unaware of the fact, she and I lived in London around the same time. I went there in 1966, and worked in offices for several years. I returned to Vancouver late in 1970.
Also, in 1966, Karlyn set sail for Southampton, via the Suez Canal, looking forward to five weeks of rest and relaxation on board. A year later, exploring the Tate Gallery, she met her future husband, Gerald Robinson, a Canadian journalist. Their first child, Elizabeth, was born in 1972 in London.
In 1973, Karlyn’s childhood dream of visiting Canada came true, when she, Gerald and the baby moved to White Rock. Six months later, Gerald was offered a job in Edmonton, where their son Mark was born. Later, they moved to Toronto.
In 1993, Gerald passed away, and Karlyn decided she would return to Australia, where her mother and sister were living in Dubbo, New South Wales - a town not far from Kandos. So three years later, after Elizabeth had graduated from the University of Toronto and Mark had finished high school, Karlyn began packing up.
As she recalls, one evening after an exhausting day spent preparing for the move, her daughter - noticing how tired Karlyn looked - offered to run her a bubble bath. And, as a special treat, Karlyn decided that, while she soaked and relaxed, she’d read the new issue of *Canadian House and Home*, which had just arrived in the mail that day.
“I flipped through the magazine, looking at the pictures,” she remembers. “Then, I just happened to notice the byline ‘By Elizabeth Godley.’” Suddenly, contacting me seemed urgent – she’d been living in Canada for 24 years and was about to return to Australia. It was now or never.
“I jumped out of the tub, streaming with water, and shouted to my children downstairs, ‘I think I’ve found my pen-friend!’ After all these years, I couldn’t believe I’d found her.”
The next morning, Karlyn called the magazine and tried to explain our story. “I was so emotional that they probably thought I was a blithering idiot, but they did agree to pass my telephone number on to Elizabeth, who was living in Vancouver.”
Shortly after that, I got a call from someone at the magazine. Did I know a Karlyn Edwards, they wondered? If so, would I contact her in Toronto at such-and-such a number?
I was thrilled, and immediately picked up the phone. She offered to fly out to Vancouver to see me, combining the trip with one to Victoria, so she could say her final goodbyes to her mother-in-law. We enthusiastically arranged to meet for lunch.
We both had tears in our eyes when we settled into a booth at a small South Granville restaurant. Opening her purse, she brought out a cotton hanky, printed with pink and red valentines. I had sent it to her in the 1950s.
Since that day in 1996, hundreds of e-mails have travelled across the Pacific Ocean, as Karlyn and I renewed our acquaintance, talked about old times and caught up on our lives.
This past January, we both turned 65. So, it seemed fitting for me to travel to Australia to join Karlyn and her family for Christmas and celebrate our birthdays. On January 15, to cement our long friendship, we climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a two-and-a-half-hour guided excursion that took us up into the bridge’s superstructure.
Looking down at Sydney Harbour, busy with ferry traffic, I thought back to 1954. I had never expected then that, more than half a century later, my letters to an Australian schoolgirl would bring me half way around the globe.
MARCH 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZING VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND