Teri Massa was a seventh-grade student in Union County when her English teacher, Mrs. Wise, gave the students an interesting assignment: establish an international pen pal. With the help of a Boston-based pen pal organization, Massa sent a letter to a peer in Norway.
A few months later, a response arrived from 13-year-old Mona Bauge of Bergen, a coastal city in southern Norway.
“Dear Theresa, thank you for your letter,” Mona wrote in neat cursive. “I hope you will write to me as soon as possible (at the same day you will get the letter from me). I’ve never been in USA, but I hope I can come there someday.”
This was December 1971.
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Yes, Teri wrote back promptly, and a long-running pen pal relationship was born. It’s lasted 51 years and counting. Mona would indeed come to the U.S. as Teri’s guest a few times, and vice-versa. Most recently, just last month, Mona stayed at Teri’s Middletown home for three weeks.
“We are so close,” Teri said. “She is like a sister to me.”
Their parallels are uncanny. Both became music teachers. Both raised children who would become exchange students. They even got married on the same day in 1984.
“She called me that morning to congratulate us,” Teri said.
Their enduring kinship is a window into a time gone by, when having a pen pal was a staple for students and letter writing made a big world a little bit smaller.
“It’s wonderful because it does open up the world,” Teri said.
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An education in every parcel
Long-distance correspondences have taken place for centuries. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson exchanged 380 letters, mostly over the final 25 years of their lives, and they remain a rich source of insight into the Founding Fathers’ thinking. “Pen pals” as a school assignment emerged during the 1930s and remained popular for decades. In 2019, Guinness World Records declared the longest-running pen pal correspondence to be 78 years.
“There is something about waiting for that letter and knowing it’s coming,” Teri said.
For many years, Teri and Mona exchanged letters about once a month. They included photos and postcards; Mona even made a necklace and sent it as a birthday present. Their bandying went well beyond the tangible.
“Remember, we didn’t have computers and television programs as we do today, so the English language was strange for me, and the USA was a continent really far away,” Mona said in an email to the Asbury Park Press. “We had to go to the library to find books to read about the world outside our own country.”
Mona bought a dictionary of English-Norwegian translation, which helped, but there was an education in every parcel from New Jersey, too.
“In a way Teri became a teacher,” Mona said. “I learned from her letters expressions in English that were new for me.”
Their exchanges slowed for a while during the child-raising years, but picked back up over the last decade or so as they took to other means of communicating — emails, texts, Facebook messages and phone calls. None of those modes, however, capture a depth of expression and leave a trail of permanence quite like the traditional letter. Teri still has all of Mona’s letters; they are, in a way, biographies of two parallel lives.
“Yes, you will end up putting more in a letter because you take the time to sit down and think about what you’re going to write,” Teri said. “But I now will write her more often when things come up. We’re going on FaceTime, too.”
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A changing world
They have seen each other in person eight times. The first came in high school, when Teri and her family visited Scandinavia. A few years later, when Mona came to the U.S., Teri’s family took her on a cross-country trip in a Winnebago. In the early 1980s Teri and Mona backpacked across Europe together.
Later they would host each other’s children, extending the cultural exchange to the next generation. In the months after 9/11, Mona came to New Jersey and Teri took her to Ground Zero.
Today Teri is 63 and Mona is 64. Their grandchildren likely won’t know the joy of having an international pen pal. Though the practice does persist, it’s no longer a staple in most schools.
“I don’t know anyone who has pen pals today,” Mona said.
The world is smaller now, with messages pinging around the globe in an instant. One way or another, true friendship overcomes distance.
But for these pen pals, the joy has been the journey. Five decades after their school assignment, it’s fair to say they aced it.
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at [email protected]