Dolores O'Riley pen pal

Dolores O’Riley enjoys looking back at the handwritten letters she received in her youth from pen pals, friends and families. If she ever ends up in a nursing home, she said she hopes to take her treasured letters along to reflect on old stories she might otherwise forget.     Rachel Collier photo

Dolores O’Riley keeps her most treasured keepsakes tucked neatly in the attic of her White Sands farmhouse: years worth of boxes filled with well indexed letters from friends and family.

A great portion of the 91-year-old’s letters are from the English pen pal she has been connecting with for more than seven decades. When Ms O’Riley was in school in Sarnia, Ontario as a teen, her classmate started connecting all her friends with pen pals.

“She asked if I wanted to write to one and I said, sure,” Ms O’Riley said. “My father said ‘you’ll just write for a couple months and give up’.”

Thousands of letters later, Ms O’Riley and her pen pal Margaret haven’t given up the friendship they’ve grown and Ms O’Riley hasn’t stopped writing.

Over the years the friends have written and talked about all sorts of topics from fashion to boyfriends, their marriages and anything else happening throughout their lives.

“Everyone likes to receive a letter,” says Ms O’Riley about why she has continued to opt for post even through the email and cellphone era.

“I’ll put a letter down then pick it up a few days later to re-read,” she said adding, the same principle applies to the writing process. She has more time to think about what she wants to say.

Margaret isn’t the only person Ms O’Riley has kept in touch with over the years by letter.

She wrote to two other pen pals she was introduced to as a teen for decades. 

Ms O’Riley has kept every letter received since the 1950s. Her collection includes letters from her late mom, whom she corresponded with at least weekly when she moved to PEI from Ontario.

“Oh I cried the day I moved to PEI, I didn’t want to leave,” Ms O’Riley said. She moved to the Island in the 1980s when her late husband retired early. She gradually adjusted and started to love her new home away from home.  

Still, she kept in touch with as many friends as possible, primarily by writing letters.

To anyone considering the habit of letter writing, Ms O’Riley says, it is well worth the keepsakes.

“But I am part of a generation where writing letters was normal,” she added. “I don’t know how it would work for the younger generation now with computers.”

Regardless Ms O’Riley intends to keep writing to her pen pal Margaret for the foreseeable future.

“Each year we say to each other, Hooray! We made it another year.”

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