‘Slow, but right’: the teen pen pals who met and sealed their love 25 years later

The next year, the youngest of my three daughters, Georgina, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 19. Karen was back in Poland finishing her doctorate and supported me via emails and phone calls. We’d always been able to do long distance well, but never more than during that time as I drove backwards and forwards between Bendigo and the hospital in Melbourne. By the time Georgina died in 1997, Karen had moved back to Bendigo to live full-time.

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I trust Karen unreservedly, admire her strong principles and respect her steadfastness and refusal to embrace gimmicky things when it comes to our work as winemakers. I can be experimental, so we balance each other out. I miss her even when she just goes to the shops. I’ve recently thought of writing her a love letter. When you commit something to paper, it’s there for keeps, isn’t it?

Karen: I’ve always been fascinated by other countries. My mother had a subscription to National Geographic and, as a child in Brooklyn, I’d pore over it. In 1964, I went to the New York World’s Fair with my father. At the Parker Pen pavilion there was a computer, a mainframe the size of a bedroom, that could connect you with a pen pal. Paul and I were matched on a single shared interest: travel.

I wrote the first letter later that year and pretty soon we were writing to each other weekly. I kept his letters in bundles, tied with a ribbon, but my mother tossed them out in 1987. I wish I still had them.

We found a letter I’d written tucked away in a book at Paul’s parents’ house, but most of them have been lost now. I’ve saved all the letters we’ve written since our first meeting, though. Paul writes quickly, with enthusiasm, using a lot of exclamation points. When I met him, I realised his handwriting says something about him: he has a zest for life, has strong opinions and is very decisive.

There were no notions of a romantic relationship at the start but, over time, our letters became more intimate: we felt comfortable sharing our opinions about family, politics – everything, really – and became close. We finally met in person in Denver, about 24 years after our first contact. I thought he looked like Ringo from the Beatles. We went to dinner and talked all night.

When we parted, I invited Paul to visit me again and he did, a few months later. The relationship deepened. I’d been by myself for so long and was bemoaning the fact that it was hard to meet good men. My friend helped me see what was right in front of me. We started writing weekly, much more emotional, letters at this stage. Then Paul started calling. Our romantic attachment was sealed.

“There were no notions of a romantic relationship at the start but, over time, our letters became more intimate.”

After the tram accident in Warsaw, I could barely walk for almost a month and he really took care of me. I realised if he could withstand the boredom of being stuck in a hospital room for that length of time, it had to be love.

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When Georgina was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 1996, I wanted to rush back from Poland, but Paul insisted I stay. He’s always been so supportive of my career and urged me to finish what I’d started. When she died, he showed the family just how strong he is. He seemed to manage his grief by retreating into himself for a while, though, which affected our relationship.

These days, we work, cook, drink wine and laugh together. Working closely with him can be challenging because he talks a lot. I wish he were more patient with technology!

Paul still writes to me on birthdays, at Christmas and on Valentine’s Day. After so many years of reading his letters and listening to his stories, I know what he’s going to say, but I still enjoy hearing him tell the tale.

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