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Dear Madeleine: Local woman carries on correspondence for 59 years

WORTHINGTON -- Bernadine and Madeleine have never met face to face.

They have never even talked on the phone.

The two women live 4,600 miles apart: Bernadine Kunze in Worthington, Madeleine Egloff-Schwarz in Basel, Switzerland.

And yet, their friendship runs deep. They've shared their joys, fears, triumphs, losses and faith for 59 years, all through letters and packages.

Bernadine was a sophomore in high school in Ocheyedan, Iowa, when the students were assigned pen pals. But Madeleine's wasn't the name she received.

"My neighbor boy -- he lived a mile and a half away," recalled Bernadine. "Well, we got on the bus, and he'd gotten her name, and he said, 'I don't want to write to no girl,' so he gave her name to me. I graduated in '56, and we were sophomores, so it had to be 1954."

Bernadine isn't sure how Madeleine's name got on the pen pal list, since at the time the Swiss woman was already married and had a little girl. But they started sharing letters, back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, and they've never stopped.

"The years we were raising our children and stuff, we didn't write as much as we did now," Bernadine noted. "Now it's about every two weeks."

Bernadine knows no German, which is Madeleine's primary language; and Madeleine's English skills are rudimentary. But somehow the women make it work.

"She says she doesn't speak very much of it, but she reads it," said Bernadine. "So I try to make it bigger letters and print. I try to make the words bigger and space them out. I can read hers pretty good, although she'll have some expressions sometimes that are kind of funny how they come out."

Despite the language barrier, the two women continue to send not just letters, but packets full of magazines, clippings, cartoons and small mementoes from their countries and communities.

"I've got trinkets from her that you wouldn't believe -- nightstand drawers that are full of them," said Bernadine.

Earlier this week, a package from Switzerland arrived, filled with the usual assortment of Swiss magazines -- one with a snake on the cover, causing Bernadine to wrinkle her nose at the image -- a small packaged cookie, some cartoons and a picture of one of Madeleine's sons.

"She sends pictures all the time -- her cat, herself, her family," Bernadine said. "She sends me a lot of jokes, and those find-the-difference pictures, a couple in every letter. ... She sends me a lot of scenery pictures -- beautiful scenery. They have a lot of cows, I've noticed."

Now, once again, it is Bernadine's turn to reciprocate. She cuts out photos and short articles from the newspaper that she thinks might be interest to her Swiss friend, and accumulates small items from local businesses or buys things she thinks will not weigh down a package too much.

"For her son who lives with her and is single, I send car ads," Bernadine added. "I get this little magazine that's mostly cars and send it to her. She says he'll stay up late at night going over those magazines."

With no interest in getting a computer, Bernadine writes all her letters out by hand. It's a pastime she enjoys.

"I like to write, although I'm not a good penmanship person," she said. "When I went to school, I should have been left-handed, but my grandpa used to bribe me with a few pennies or a nickel to write right-handed. All my children are left-handed. But my paternal grandfather did not want any left-handed people ... and in my day and age, you could get quite a bit of candy for a penny."

Bernadine tries to keep her letters newsy and conversational.

"If I buy a new piece of clothing, I'll tell her, and we'll talk about the styles, compare things," she explained. "I even send her grocery ads so we can compare prices. It isn't hard for me to write a letter. Everybody says you need a computer, and I say I'm doing OK."

After making her latest dispatch at the post office, Bernadine records every letter and package she sends, with an inventory of the contents, the date it was sent and how much it cost to send it. Similarly, at the beginning of every letter, she makes note of the date, the time and even the temperature.

"Now it's $1.20 to send a letter," explained Bernadine. "When I send magazines, maybe three magazines with a little note in there, it's $12 to $14. Yes, it costs you money to have a long-distance friendship, but it can be done. If you have the time and money, it can be done. Some people go to the casino and spend money. I'm just going to do this."

They come from different cultures and lead different lives in their respective countries, but the two women have found much in common, too -- especially in recent years.

Both Bernadine and Madeleine are now widows. Bernadine lost husband Willie 14 months ago, and Madeleine's husband died just shortly before that.

"Her husband died in November, and Willie died in April," Bernadine said. "Her husband died suddenly, and really, mine did, too. Neither was sick very long.

"We each have three children, two boys and a girl, and we each have one who isn't married," she continued about the similarities in their lives. "She has a daughter, Astrid, and Simon and Stephen are her sons. My kids are Joel, Denise and Scott."

The two women have also shared their cancer journeys.

"We are both cancer survivors. I've had esophageal and colon cancer," Bernadine said. "I think hers is breast. She's under treatments now, but she says she's doing OK. ... I had 11 inches of colon removed. God didn't make me a smooth road, he put in some rocks. But he always picks me up and helps me along."

The faith that has seen Bernadine through some hard times is something else that she has in common with her Swiss pen pal. She believes that the prayers and Christian love they share have helped to keep their friendship strong over the many years.

"It's like I've got a beating heart of Christian love in a faraway place," Bernadine said, trying to put her emotions into words. "It's always like a wave that comes over me. I can feel this love when I get this letter and read these words. There is always encouragement or happiness or sadness -- something that draws us together. It's like we're intertwined.

"I always tell her my mailbox was smiling when I went to get the mail, and then I write down the date that I got it --she likes to know that. My mailbox is happy, and I'm happy, too."

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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