Long-Distance Romance

This June, Dale and I will celebrate 42 years of marriage. In 1964, we entered Messiah College in the same freshman class. For four years we went to school together, shared some classes (although not most since he was a math major and I was an English major), but didn’t date except for one Sadie Hawkins event our freshman year and we didn’t know each other well. After we graduated in 1968, he went off to Zambia to do his alternate military service and I went to graduate school at the University of Idaho. Neither of us would have imagined then that three years later we would be married to each other.

Way out in what felt like the middle of nowhere at graduate school in Moscow, Idaho, I was very homesick and lonely. I didn’t know anyone and survived the first semester by writing lengthy and chatty commiserating letters to college friends who had also dispersed to unfamiliar places and receiving similar letters from them. In one letter, my best friend Mary, writing from her graduate school outpost in Kansas, told me that her mother, a pastor’s wife, had a conversation with Dale’s mother, also a pastor’s wife, back in Pennsylvania. How the subject came up, I don’t know, but apparently Dale’s mother told Mary’s mother that Dale would probably enjoy hearing from me. (Knowing Dale’s mother, I suspect she was trying to help make something happen for her son in the romance department!) The next question for me was whether and how to act on the information Mary gave me. I was definitely interested, because ever since that Sadie Hawkins “date” when we were freshmen, I had a crush on Dale.

So as not to seem too pushy or forward, I decided to send Christmas cards and letters not only to Dale but also to the three other members of our graduating class who were teaching at the same school in Zambia. That way, it wouldn’t look too much like I was “chasing” Dale! Two of them were married to each other and the other was dating one of my good friends, so for them my card was just a friendly gesture. In Dale’s letter I suggested I would be glad to hear from him if he wanted to write to me. And then I waited. Some weeks later (remember, this was in the days of snail-mail when even airmail letters took an average of a week to arrive), I received a letter from Dale thanking me for my letter and saying that he would like us to continue writing to each other. And the rest, as they say, is history!

We wrote regularly to each other for one-and-a-half years, from December 1968 until he returned to the U. S. in August 1970. I watched the mail eagerly for those familiar blue airforms. The truth is that I was more “regular” with writing than Dale was; there were times when it seemed like I was anxiously waiting for weeks without a letter, during which time I catastrophized about why he hadn’t written. But then another letter would arrive and all my worries would prove unnecessary. It was a major milestone when we started signing our letters with “love.” At Christmas time in 1969, while I was home from grad school, Dale’s parents invited me to their home (they were doing their part to nurture the relationship!). While I was there, they made an audio tape to send to him and expected me to contribute. That was awkward, and I asked to record my message privately, although I’m sure they listened to it later. I have no memory of what I said!

As August 1970 approached, I was both nervous and excited at the prospect of seeing Dale after having romanced each other only by letter and a couple of audiotapes. What would happen when we were together in person? Would the relationship fizzle or blossom? I made plans with his family to go along to meet him at the Harrisburg airport when he arrived. That evening was one of the most nerve-wracking and awkward of my life. We had no previous romantic history to guide how we would greet each other (handshake, hug, kiss?) and we were both shy and introverted, plus his 15-year-old brother was there snapping pictures. Suffice it to say we greeted each other and made it through the evening!

I went home with him and his family from the airport for the night, and the next day travelled with them to State College where Dale had an appointment related to attending graduate school at Penn State that fall. So our first day together was spent with his parents and brother, a lot of it in the car. Soon, however, we started dating in a more traditional way and without his family. I was in my first year of teaching and living at home with my parents and he was in graduate school. Either he would come to Grantham and stay with me and my family for the weekend or I would go to State College to spend the weekend with him. By Christmas he had asked me to marry him, we formally announced our engagement on January 3, 1971 and we were married on June 19.

Dale and I found each other at the right time in our lives. Even though it might have been nice if we had dated in college, neither of us was probably ready at that point. But, when we were both off on our own in far-flung places, feeling somewhat isolated and lonely even in the midst of new experiences, it felt right. And there was something about a letter-writing courtship that worked for us. I’ve never regretted writing that first letter!

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14 thoughts on “Long-Distance Romance

  1. Letter writing romances are, no doubt, mostly a thing of the past. The electronic age makes communication almost instant. And it is no longer asynchronous communication. Questions asked in a Skype conversation or even an email conversation can be answered almost immediately.
    When I was writing the biography of my grandparents, I read all their courting letters–and I read them sequentially, so it was like listening to a conversation. Even though that was in the early 1900s, the easy access that each had to trains (with mail trains) meant letters exchanged took only a day to travel to their destination.
    If I am remembering correctly, Dale and my brother Daryl were college roommates at least for a year. And I think Dale features prominently in one near disastrous canoe trip they took on the Yellow Breeches Creek.

    • Donna, I’ve often wondered how our long-distance romance would have been different with more instant electronic communication.

      I’m not sure if Dale and Daryl were ever roommates but their friendship does go back to college. And yes, Dale has often talked about how awful he would have felt if that canoe trip had not had a happy ending. It was a good lesson–never go canoeing when the creek is high (especially if someone is a non-swimmer!). In more recent years, Dale wrote a poem about the event, telling the story and expressing some of the emotion of it.

  2. What a delightful story! So fun to find out the history of your relationship. David and I also had a mostly long-distance relationship (only across state lines, not continents!) and punctuated with more in-person visits. Most of it was over email, some phone, and a few (more from me than him) written letters. I have often thought I should go back and print the emails out, as a record of the early stages of the relationship. (The phone was often awkward and difficult to discuss anything of substance.) I think there’s something very nice about something tangible to look back on (and re-read/relive) about a relationship. And I think for introverts, who find it much easier to communicate in writing than in person at times, it can be a much easier and more authentic way to build a relationship. Thanks for sharing!

    • Gretta, interesting that you and David also carried on a long-distance courtship. I agree with you that there was something about communicating in writing is often a lot easier, and in our case, I think that it helped us to learn to know each other better without the distraction of trying to figure out what to say and how to act with each other in person. It was still awkward for awhile when we finally were together in person, but we had a good foundation to build on. I wish we still had all the letters back and forth, but we don’t.

    • Thanks, Derek. Nice to know you’re reading it. It’s been fun so far. Even though it’s a bit of a challenge to come up with a post every day, I am enjoying being able to write about stuff I want to write about, and not stuff I have to for work, etc.

  3. Dale and I did not room together–at least that I remember! But Tartuffe and Minnemingo were major events in my freshman year at Messiah. And I value that friendship with an upperclassman who didn’t turn away a first year student. I remember also a record with “Who will answer?” that Dale played often. I don’t know if the singer was a particular favourite, but that song from the album sticks in my mind. Letter-writing: now there is a lost art, a loss for which we are poorer. I was never a great letter-writer 9in the sense of regular), but finding old letters now recaptures past times better than any photograph.

  4. Pingback: Strolling Gretna: The Story of a Friendship | Pieces of Peace

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