The love that binds friends: Long-lost pen pals find each other in Edmonds

If you think Valentine’s Day is all about romantic love, well, think again.

Love comes in all flavors and stripes, and with Valentine’s Day upon us the timing is perfect to expand our definitions and take a fresh look at love in all its forms.

Take, for example, the love that binds friends. It often begins in childhood, holds over the years, lives in memory, and despite many decades of separation bursts forth in full at the time of reunion.

For Edmonds residents Helen Ladd and Tina King, it began in the early 1970 s when they were teenagers, living half a world apart. Tina was in Seattle; Helen Young (her name at the time) was in the Philippines, a child of Chinese parents who had fled mainland China to escape the excesses of Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution.

“My best friend Jane had begun a pen friend relationship with an American teenager,” recalls Helen (pen-friends is the Filipino term for what Americans call pen pals). “It was set up through our school as a way to help us expand our world and learn about different cultures, I guess. Anyway, she was exchanging letters, photos, postcards, etc. with a girl name Laurie in Seattle. It looked like fun, so I decided to give it a try. That’s when I started up my pen friend relationship with Laurie’s best friend Tina Ward.”

The two kept up the exchange for several years, with personal notes, photos and other memorabilia regularly flying back and forth across the Pacific. They shared their joys, personal triumphs, challenges, sadness and many of the coming-of-age adventures that young women experience at that tender stage of life.

“For me, there was something exciting and exotic about writing to someone in the Philippines.” added Tina. “It was all written correspondence. It almost seems archaic today with the internet and social media. But we’d actually sit down, put pen to paper and write about our thoughts, dreams and activities. There’s something very personal about doing it ‘the old fashioned way’ that has probably now been lost forever.”

As time passed, Helen and Tina grew up and their lives moved on. Helen went to high school in the Philippines, and Tina became more involved with local friends, clubs and activities, remaining in the Northwest. The letters became fewer and less frequent, and ultimately ceased all together.

While Helen was Tina’s only pen pal, Helen had a few others including a young man in Seattle. As her written exchanges with him became increasingly romantic, Helen made the decision to travel to Seattle and meet face-to-face.

“I actually had another male pen friend in San Francisco,” she added. “I seriously considered going there instead, but after years of corresponding with Tina I felt like I knew Seattle, so that was it.”

And yes, Helen and her male friend met, found love and were married in the late 1980s. Helen took on her new husband’s name and became Helen Ladd. And back in Seattle, Tina had also found the love of her life, married and became Tina King.

But we said this piece was not about romantic love, right? Well, read on…

“I have always been athletic, and love physical activity of all sorts,” said Helen. “It wasn’t long before I started working as a trainer at various health clubs, teaching classes in aerobics, yoga, Pilates and other disciplines.”

Today Helen teaches at Edmonds’ Harbor Square Athletic Club, and one of her favorite gigs is the Monday evening water aerobics class. Her students love it too, including one named Tina.

“I signed up for that class because it fit my schedule and gave me a much-needed dose of ‘me time,'” added Tina. “It had been so many years since we’d written that I had absolutely no idea that my instructor was none other than my old childhood pen pal from the Philippines.”

“I hadn’t thought about Tina in decades,” added Helen. “It was almost like I’d forgotten that I ever had a pen-friend.”

And it may have stayed that way, and the friends would have never reunited, but for Helen’s decision to host an impromptu holiday get-together for her water aerobics class.

“It was just wine, cheese and crackers in the Harbor Square Athletic Club lobby,” she said. “We gathered together and started talking, and for many of us it was the first time we interacted socially outside of the pool. We talked about our present lives and our past histories, shared laughs and personal notes. I shared about speaking several languages, being Chinese but growing up in the Philippines.”

This hit Tina between the eyes and jogged her memory. She hadn’t even thought about her old pen pal in decades, and suddenly the name came to her.

“Is Helen a common name in the Philippines?” she asked.

“No,” responded Helen. “Why do you ask?”

“Back when I was growing up I had a pen-pal who lived in the Philippines,” Tina responded. “And her name was Helen.”

Helen gasped, her eyes flew open. “Are you…are you…Tina Ward?” she asked.

Tina looked back saying, “Are you Helen Young?”

In that moment, all the pieces came together amid smiles, tears, squeals of delight, hugs and cheers from the rest of the class. The two old friends couldn’t stop staring at each other, and with each memory pulled up from their correspondence, new connections were made and old ones restored.

“I remember getting a photo of your family,” said Tina. “Your dad, brothers and sisters were in the picture. You were the oldest, right?”

“You had long dark hair and glasses,” recalled Helen. “I haven’t thought about this for years, but now it’s like it was yesterday.”

In the ensuing weeks the friends have continued to talk as new memories bubble up from their pen pal days.

“It’s like a miracle,” said Tina. “The six degrees of separation thing says that we’re all connected in six or fewer ‘friend to friend’ steps. It sure came true for us.”

— By Larry Vogel

  1. This is a great piece- You truly captured their warmth and friendship in both the photos and your written words.

    I attend this water aerobics class at Harbor Square Athletic Club on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Helen inspires me to work hard and get the most out of every class workout. I was at the social gathering, and am still in awe of how these two “found” each other after almost fifty years.

  2. This is an awesome story and this has happened to me as well. When I was 15 my dad saw an add in readers digest about pen pals and it said just pick a country and we march you with someone. Mine happed to be a 17 year old girl named Kylie from Australia and much like this story we wrote letters and lost contact the same way. I never forgot her though and always wondered what she was doing, how life was going etc, one day I decided to look her up. I found her on linked in and Facebook and rekindled our friendship once again. It is amazing how the feelings from so long ago come back to you because she was my first love. Both of us are married and have kids if our own but it is awesome to reconnect again!

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