Pen pals ink their friendship since 1947

Amy Slade and her husband, Clive, on their wedding day.

When, in 1947, Ms Slade (nee Hillary) started writing letters to John Palmer, a young Englishman from Hastings, she had no clue that their pen pal friendship would stand the test of time and distance.

Amy remembers browsing through the pen pal section section of the newspaper as a 16-year-old with her school friends.

“There was a whole page dedicated to pen pals from overseas,” said Ms Slade, who lives in Tygerhof. She had already had two pen pals but ended the correspondence when they started “getting fresh”.

“I was only interested in friendship.”

The third pen pal, Michael Gunn, had so many replies he politely passed on her details to his buddy, John Palmer.

“John wrote to me and said Michael had given him my name and that he hoped I didn’t mind him writing to me.”

Ms Slade, who had enjoyed writing letters since she was a little girl, welcomed Mr Palmer’s letter, and so a regular correspondence of “a letter or two” a month started. With him being only a year younger than her, the two were never short of topics to discuss and learnt a great deal about the other’s family and country.

“One day he wrote to me saying that he got a bar of chocolate for his birthday, and he was so excited about it. It was only then that I realised how bad things were going after the war. I decided to send him and his family a treat, and I got a big biscuit tin and filled it with chocolates and sweets and sent it to England. They were so happy.”

From then parcels were regularly exchanged between the two continents — Ms Slade’s were mostly filled with perishables and, to say thank you, Mr Palmer’s mother would send the most beautifully embroidered tea cloths.

“Once I sent a tin of guavas, and John wrote me asking if it was a fruit or a vegetable because they did not know how to eat it. They had never seen a guava before.”

As the years progressed, the pen pals grew up and both got engaged and married around the same time. Ms Slade had four children, but Mr Palmer never had any.

Ms Palmer said their letters were filled with news about her children and his family and work but they “never got personal”.

She believes this is the reason for their correspondence lasting so long.

“Isn’t it funny? Here he was a schoolboy who grew into a man and we never got personal”.

She said that in the beginning she thinks her husband was jealous of their letters, but she told him she had known Mr Palmer before him and she would not give him up.

In 1975, after having corresponded for 28 years, the two finally met when Ms Slade went to England to visit an ailing aunt.

“When we met each other for the first time we knew each other straight away. There were no embarrassments. We shook hands.”

Mr Palmer’s wife, Doreen, had prepared a big meal to welcome Ms Slade. Mr Palmer also took Ms Slade to surprise his parents in Hastings where he had grown up.

“When I walked in, they stared at me and I started speaking and they said ‘you’re Amy’”.

In 1977 Ms Slade and her husband invited Mr Palmer to South Africa. They showed him Plettenberg Bay, Stellenbosch, Port Elizabeth and Oudtshoorn.

“He went wild over the mountains. He took so many pictures of them.”

Two years ago, Mr Palmer lost his wife. Ms Slade says her death broke his heart. “They were such a lovely couple.”

Their letters have stopped in the past year, replaced with phone calls when Mr Palmer finally got a cellphone.

“We don’t talk often on the phone. It’s expensive. I miss writing to him in a way. But we don’t have much news now. We’re older.”

Ms Slade has not kept any of Mr Palmer’s letters as she has an “answer and destroy” policy.

There are, however, a few pictures she has of Mr Palmer which have accompanied his letters over the years. Some are old, depicting a young fresh-faced John. Others, more recent, show a grey-haired older man.

A lifetime of letters is testament to their natural affinity to one another, and when asked if Mr Palmer could possibly be her soulmate, Ms Slade pauses for a moment, reflecting on 70 years of friendship, and replies: “I think he could be my soulmate, yes”.