Lena Ånimmer from Sweden and Melissa O’Brien from the United States were introduced through an international penpal organization over 36 years ago.
The two then-12-year-old girls began writing letters to each other – a routine they have kept up into adulthood.
Despite their transatlantic friendship enduring almost four decades, they have never met in person. But thanks to the support of a crowdfunding website called Kickstarter, Ånimmer and O’Brien will finally get to meet for the first time.
Becoming a penpal felt natural for O’Brien, who enjoyed writing a diary from a young age.
Born in North Dakota but raised on the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, her exposure to Europeans was limited. But O’Brien’s correspondence with Ånimmer gave her a rare glimpse of the Swedish way of life.
“I was always a curious child and wanted to learn what life was like for girls living outside my little hometown and thought it would be cool to write to someone in a different country,” O’Brien says.
“I was paired with Lena – we were the same age and shared similar interests such as skiing and outdoor pursuits. We connected instantly.”
Ånimmer also relishes the craft of letter writing.
“I enjoy handwriting letters – putting words together and finding expressions that correspond to what I wish to say,” she explains.
In the early years, they exchanged letters up to twice a month. Each time Lena’s letters arrived it was a cause for celebration. The whole O’Brien family gathered together, keen to learn more about Sweden.
“My grandparents died before I was born and we had no extended family outside the US,” O’Brien says.
“My exposure was limited in that respect. Lena’s letters offered me a different perspective of the world and my first real introduction to Europe.”
As they grew older, both women built careers and reared families. Now aged 47, O’Brien is a photographer and single mother of three and says she always found time to write to Ånimmer – even during the busier years.
“When we became mothers we corresponded less but we still made time to write and stay in touch,” she says.
“We never stopped.”
Ånimmer admits full-time work and raising children has made letter writing more difficult than it once was.
Though the two have flirted with using modern forms of communication such as Skype and text messages, they favour handwritten letters and have only ever spoken on the phone once.
They have not even exchanged that many photographs and both are unsure of each other’s appearance.
“For a brief period of time we did try to email one another but we didn’t like it and stopped,” O’Brien explains.
“It didn’t work for us at all.”
Ånimmer has access to a computer, but would rather put pen to paper.
“I still prefer sending a handwritten letter to friends and relatives because it is more personal. The handwritten letter has qualities beyond words that an email can never equal,” she says.
“The fact that I like to write – and receive – such letters is probably to some extent linked to my work.”
An archivist at UNESCO, Ånimmer cares for a number of family records, in which innumerable private letters are kept.
“A letter has a much longer life than the person who wrote it,” she says.
“They allow us to imagine what it was like living many years or even centuries ago.”
While emails tend to require short responses, letters exchanged between the two women are often many pages long and usually written over a few days, O’Brien says.
“We could communicate more quickly using modern technology but our friendship might risk losing some of the magic,” O’Brien says.
“Nowadays everything is so immediate people forget to be patient and to slow down and enjoy the simple things in life.
“I remember explaining to Lena that we had purchased a computer but no one at home had a clue how to use it. Lena’s response was classic. She said she didn’t understand why people would own one.”
For both women, the friendship has been one of the longest running relationships in their lives. Though they have yet to meet – they did come close on more than one occasion.
In 1986, O’Brien was studying English literature in London. They planned to meet but it didn’t work out. O’Brien later invited Ånimmer to her wedding in Vermont during the 1990s. Unfortunately Ånimmer’s father fell ill and she couldn’t make the transatlantic crossing.
“Our collection of letters and postcards document the history of our lifelong friendship but also the history of what was happening in the world at that time,” O’Brien says.
“I have always been impressed by Lena’s descriptions of Sweden – it sounds so progressive and liberal.”
But earlier this autumn, O’Brien came up with an idea that she thought might help finally bring her to Sweden to meet her distant penpal.
She set up a project on Kickstarter, a popular crowdfunding website, in hopes of raising $3,500 to fund a documentary about her friendship with Ånimmer.
The project seemed plausible.
Her 17-year-old son Sam, a film student, could produce it to keep costs down, she hoped. They offered incentives to encourage donations on Kickstarter: a book, photographs – even a meal. To their surprise, donations poured in from around the world.
“The reaction to our story and the project is heart-warming,” O’Brien says.
“Sharing stories is important for humanity. The reaction reminds me of something Lena referred to in one of her letters when she described how people react to tragedy. She said the simple act of letter writing can create a bridge between people who, otherwise, might not have any connection. I guess that’s true of my friendship with her and of the people supporting this project.”
In a little more than a month, O’Brien had raised over $4,500, and a trip to Stockholm to being the documentary is planned for June 2013 – but exact dates have yet to be confirmed.
Regardless, the two lifelong penpals will finally get to meet for the first time next summer.
“It will be exciting to meet Melissa for the first time and interesting to see if the idea that I have of her corresponds to reality,” Ånimmer says.
“Of course I also find it a bit scary. Perhaps she will be disappointed when she realizes it’s just dreary old me behind all those fine words!”
O’Brien is equally excited about the trip but also harbours some reservations.
“Because we only know each other through letters a kind of magic surrounds our friendship,” O’Brien says.
“Until recently I feared a meeting with Lena might break that spell and remove some of the mystery surrounding our lifelong friendship. But we are both 47-years-old and I’ve come to accept that time is precious.
“I don’t want to live my life without having met her. The time is now.”