Barbara and Janelle became pen pals in 1980 when they were 9 years old. Now, almost 40 years later, the women will meet for the first time in person. Mark Henle/

Barbara Cajowski looked out the window of her Gold Canyon home — again — and wrung her hands.

“I have been having anxiety all day,” she said. She felt like she was meeting a celebrity, someone she’d read about, and seen pictures of, but never met.

“I’m terrified,” Barbara said, and then she laughed. “I’m excited, thrilled, but I am terrified.”

Would they instantly like each other? Would they struggle to make small talk, or would it be easy like in all the letters, all those letters over the years? These thoughts ran through her head. 

Barbara didn’t sleep much the night before. She laid out four outfits and changed once before she settled on what to wear. She smoothed the skirt of her blue printed dress.

“I can’t believe this is actually happening,” Barbara said.

Her phone pinged, and she looked at the message on the screen: “On our way. Google maps says we’ll arrive at 3:05 p.m.”

Barbara sat back down on the couch.

She had been waiting for this for 37 years. She could wait 25 minutes more.

The girl from Indiana

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In 1980, Barbara was a 9-year-old girl living in Long Island, New York, with her accountant dad, bookkeeper mom and a little brother, who was 4. 

Barbara’s mother had bought her an Etch A Sketch, the classic drawing toy with the red frame and two white knobs. You drew pictures by turning the knobs this way and that and the dark line appeared like magic on the silver background.

Barbara said, “I loved that if you made a mistake you could erase it easily.” And then, “I wish more things were like that.”

Back then, Barbara had read on the box that there was an Etch A Sketch Club. She joined and received a newsletter that included a pen-pal exchange and drawing contests.

(You can’t join the club anymore, but you can follow Etch A Sketch on Instagram, @itsetchasketch.)

Barbara signed up to be a pen pal and received a letter, dated April 14, 1980, from a 9-year-old girl who lived on a farm in Indiana.

The girl had enclosed a school picture, showing her long reddish hair and heart locket. On the back, she had written, “Janelle Cooper, age 9.”

Barbara wrote right back.

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‘You have a pretty picture’

In careful cursive on stationery with a teddy bear in the bottom right corner, she asked, “What is your favorite show? Mine is The Brady Bunch.

“You have a pretty picture.”

She remembers looking at the picture and thinking: “I’m never going to meet this person. She’s never going to meet my friends or my teachers. I can tell her anything.”

So she wrote: “If you don’t tell anyone I will tell you a personal secret. I am scared to death of the noise of Thunder and hate Lightning.

“Please don’t tell anyone.”

Nine-year-old Barbara hated summer because storms could roll in at any moment. She would cover her ears and bury her face in her pillow.

She knew it was ridiculous. So she didn’t tell anyone.

But now she could tell Janelle.

“I don’t know if this is the adult talking, or maybe the kid, but I wonder if it was easier to talk to somebody who didn’t know me,” Barbara said as she waited.

Barbara concluded that first letter with, “You also have a pretty name. Do you have a nice teacher?

“Please write back.

“Your pen pal,

“Barbara Slavin

“pronounced Slavin”

She drew a macron (¯), the long vowel mark above the “a” and a breve ( ? ), a short vowel mark, above the “i.”

Barbara laughed as she reread the letter, a copy of the original Janelle had sent to her.

“It seems so dorky now,” she said. “But obviously, at the time, it was perfect!”

She didn’t keep the letters Janelle wrote, though she saved her pictures. They are in an album on the coffee table.

Barbara glanced at the clock and then out the window again.

“I cannot believe this is actually happening after all these years,” she said.

The teddy bear in the corner

When Janelle was growing up, her mother had as many as 30 pen pals. 

The year she was 9, her mother’s pen pal from Argentina came to visit after 15 years of correspondence. This woman seemed exotic, coming from so far away. She spoke five languages.

Janelle wanted a pen pal of her own. 

She was sitting on the porch on a warm Saturday when the mailman brought Barbara’s first letter.

She opened it right there and noticed first the teddy bear on the lower right corner of the stationery.

Janelle was the youngest of three children, and the only girl. She was picked on at school, teased for being shy and sometimes pushed and tripped.

But this girl in New York, who liked to dance and watch “The Brady Bunch,” had confided her fear of thunder and lightning and asked Janelle to write back.

Janelle felt like she had a connection with someone. She wanted to be her friend.

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‘I can tell her anything’

As a girl, Barbara had plenty of friends, but sheloved getting mail. She had more than one pen pal. She’d squeal with delight when she saw an envelope with her name on it, a postmark from a far-off place.

To a 9-year-old girl in New York, even a farm in Indiana seemed like a far-off place.

Barbara’s other pen pals wrote a few times and then stopped.

Janelle kept writing.

Back and forth the girls wrote, on pretty stationery with matching envelopes that came in packets tied with silky ribbons. They dropped letters in the mail twice a month.

They wrote through high school, swapping prom pictures and writing about the classes they didn’t like and the boys they did.

Barbara had other friends, but if she told them all these things, they might tell, or tease her.

I’m never going to meet this person. I can tell her anything.

She told Janelle when she met John in high school, how sweet he was, and when it turned to love.

Barbara wrote that she wanted to be a teacher. Janelle wanted to teach dance.

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Writing what she couldn’t say

As kids, Janelle and Barbara had plotted to get together, elaborate plans that their parents would never approve. When they were grown, they talked about it, but the years went by, and somehow it never happened.

Life got in the way. That happens sometimes.

They only spoke on the phone a few times.

When they were kids, a long-distance call was expensive still. Barbara called Janelle on her wedding day, to wish her well, but that was it.

Maybe, she thought, theirs was a friendship forged in written words.

Barbara wasn’t always good in social situations. She would get nervous when she met someone for the first time.

But she could express herself in writing, better than in person. Writing meant she could get out everything she wanted to say in just the right way.

Janelle was a writer. Maybe it was the same for her. 

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Life goes on, old ties fade

Janelle married and opened a dance studio. Barbara married that sweet John from high school; she became a teacher.

Janelle sent a birth announcement for her first child, Anthony James, 7 pounds, 20¼ inches. Barbara wrote to tell Janelle she was pregnant.

She told Janelle she was excited but also a little afraid. 

I’m never going to meet this person. I can tell her anything.

She sent pictures of her first, a girl, Cassandra, and then her boy, Kyle.

And then the women lost touch.

When Barbara got on Facebook in July 2010, she searched for her old pen pal. She didn’t know Janelle had divorced and then remarried in 2002 and changed her name.

Barbara moved to Arizona in 2005.

It was Janelle, now Janelle Alex, who found Barbara on Facebook in January 2011. The women picked up where they left off, writing messages online, back and forth, their cellphones pinging with notifications.

‘She’s probably nervous, too’

Now they would meet, 37 years after that first tentative exchange of letters.

Janelle was coming to visit Barbara.She and her husband, Rob, had moved to Colorado in 2012, just one state away.

They were house-sitting in Gilbert with their son Boegley, who’s 10. Janelle is an author, shaman and coach and blogs about their travels.

Barbara stood again and pressed her hands to her chest. “It’s a cross between wanting to throw up and want to jump for joy.”

It was almost 3 p.m.

“Just think,” Kyle, 13, said, “she’s probably nervous, too.” He was sitting on the love seat with his sister, Cassandra, now 18.

“I can’t believe after 37 years, it’s a matter of minutes,” Barbara said, watching out the window.

A silver car pulled into the driveway.

“She’s here!” Barbara said. She hugged John and took a deep breath.

Then Janelle was at the door. Barbara pulled it open and they stood, face to face, grinning, and then crying.

“I cannot believe it,” Barbara said.

“I know, right?” Janelle said.

They hugged. “You’re shaking as hard as I am,” Barbara said, and hugged her again.

They introduced their husbands, and kids, and then Barbara tugged Janelle by the hand to sit on the couch. She handed her the photo album, and they bent their heads over it.

Friends forever

Barbara is out of school for the summer, so they will have plenty of time together in the few weeks Janelle is here. 

They would spend hours together that first day. “It was like hanging with friends we’ve had forever,” Barbara said later.

And then they would meet again a few days later before Kyle’s basketball game and make plans for dinner after that.

They talked constantly, about things they shared in letters and those they didn’t.

Barbara finally met the little girl she thought would be the perfect friend because they would never meet. And she discovered that it was different in person.

It was better. 

And she could still tell her anything.

Reach Bland at [email protected] or 602-444-8614.


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