In a day and age where pens are seldom put to paper and connecting with people is as easy and instantaneous as the click of a button, she writes. She prefers a book with pages that you can actually turn and the freshly printed words of the weekly news. From a very young age Audrey Zempel has enjoyed both writing and reading and throughout her life has fostered a deep appreciation for the power and the beauty of the written word. Which is why it’s a little surprising to learn that she was not fond of grade school penmanship class, “I really didn’t like that class…so once I reached 7th grade I started slanting my words the other way, to the left.” This little “slant” was the beginning of Audrey’s unique handwriting style. One she would continue to cultivate throughout her life. Interested in art and drawing it was a book she got her junior or senior year which showed how to do calligraphy that captivated her and helped her hone her creative handwriting skill.
But it wasn’t just beautiful handwriting she enjoyed, she loved writing. And so, it seemed a natural thing while reading a comic book to respond to an ad about “Pen-Pals.” She wrote in and got back a list of names and addresses. “I just thought it’d be fun to write to somebody else,” she said. And so began, from the age of thirteen, a journey which would span the decades and forge long-lasting friendships. “We would discuss the weather, and the things they did,” she said. They’ve experienced their teenage years on into adulthood, engagements, weddings, children, and grandchildren.
And, they’ve also experienced life in other parts of the country and world. Audrey had several “Pen-Pals,” “There was one that I didn’t know if it was a boy or girl because of the name and country…but when I wrote that I got engaged, I never heard from the person again…must have been a boy,” she says with a hint of laughter. But there were three with whom she would develop life-long relationships. Gwen Nash from North Carolina, Pat Byrn from Australia, and Joyce Ostler from England. She learned from Pat that while there are differences, “life in Australia is very much the same as ours here.” It was just this past December that Audrey received a letter from Pat’s daughter saying she had recently passed away.
Having never saved countless postcards, letters and other cards, looking back, there are things she wishes she would have kept. She and Joyce were penning letters through World War II, “she would send me pictures and news clippings of the buildings in east Yorkshire that were bombed by Germany.” “Joyce had a different life because of the War…most of the men her age were all killed in war, including her brother who was killed at Dunkirk.” When asked what happened to Joyce, “I never did find out what happened to Joyce, after 1989 I just didn’t hear from her anymore…she never married and didn’t have any kids.” Audrey, now eighty-eight, and Gwen, now eighty-five, still enjoy the occasional letter and birthday cards.
This friendship is one that has transcended paper, “for their twenty-fifth anniversary their kids gave them money to drive from North Carolina to Minnesota to see us.” Gwen and her husband David stayed with Audrey and her husband LeRoy for a week. “It was fun, Roy showed David where he would deer hunt…we went to a really good eating place by Luverne that was called the Blue Mound.” “We all recognized some of the differences between Minnesota and North Carolina when I reached down to pick some rhubarb in our garden and Joyce cringed saying she’d “never reach down” like that because of all the big bull snakes back home.” When asked what stands out most from decades of letter writing she says no matter where someone might be, “people really aren’t so different.” As with most things in life, it’s the seemingly insignificant moments or smallest things that really do have a way of creating a lasting impact.