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The power of pen pals

After 40 years of corresponding, Pleasanton woman finally meets NY friend

Pleasanton resident Nichelle Baviera (right) and her New York pen pal Diana Harris at a restaurant in the airport, where they couldn't stop talking after finally meeting in person after corresponding for 40 years. (Photo by Mike Martin)

"Dear Diana."

"Dear Nichelle."

So began a correspondence in the 1970s between two little girls on opposite coasts, launching a long distance friendship that spanned four decades until they finally met face to face last year.

"It takes commitment and love to commit to one thing for a long period of time," said Nichelle Baviera, a Pleasanton resident. "And the rewards of getting to know her over the years have been comforting and enlightening."

They were paired through the pen pal program of "Big Blue Marble," a PBS show that aired from 1974-83, its name inspired by the Apollo 17 photograph of Earth from a distance dubbed "The Blue Marble." The TV program focused on introducing children to others in different parts of the country and throughout the world.

"This show marked a lifelong adventure that yielded a best friend and got me out of my shell," Nichelle recalled.

Toward the end of each broadcast was a segment about pen pals.

"I decided to write in and request a pen pal," Nichelle said.

The show sent her three candidates: one from abroad, another from Nebraska, and Diana Harris from New York. Two of the pen pal ventures were short-lived, but she and Diana kept on writing.

"I loved receiving mail when I was a kid, going to the mailbox, and I got a thrill out of receiving letters -- and writing letters and sharing my experiences in California," Nichelle said.

Diana, who had two much older brothers, recalled sitting in front of the TV on Saturday morning watching the show.

"I remember seeing a thing one day that if you want a pen pal, send in a postcard with your name and where you live -- and I got hers," she said.

Nichelle noted that when they began writing in the 1970s, letters and expensive phone calls were the only ways to communicate long distance.

"One of the first photos I received from her was dated Aug. 3, 1979, when she lived in Brooklyn, New York, and I lived in Sacramento," Nichelle said.

As a result of their correspondence, young Nichelle developed a fascination with all things New York.

"At one time I knew all the different mayors," she recalled with a laugh. "I would get maps and check out the different boroughs. I got travel guides from AAA. I went to a book store one year and got a travel guide to New York."

They continued to write through the "turbulent teen years,"young adulthood, their marriages and having children, Nichelle said.

Nichelle has a son, Isaiah (Amador Valley High class of 2013), and Diana has a daughter, Victoria, 21. They also began to telephone.

"I felt comfortable sharing with her," Nichelle said. "Over the last few years, our calls have gotten more frequent."

Diana credits Nichelle with keeping the friendship going.

"After I got married and moved away, she always initiated it and wrote," Diana remembered. "She is the one who is so organized."

"I made an effort to keep in contact and write her often and call on holidays," Nichelle said. "There were moments in our communication where it wasn't frequent but I kept her close to my heart. I secretly prided myself in maintaining this relationship for as long as I did."

As the years passed, they frequently discussed meeting in person, hoping one or the other would make the cross country trip. For a long time, Diana kept a story on her refrigerator that Nichelle had sent about two longtime pen pals finally meeting in California.

"It never happened but we still wrote, and as we got older the phone calls became more frequent," Nichelle said.

Eventually they began to email, communicated on MySpace and Facebook, and then moved on to texting, Instagram and SnapChat.

"A new world opened up to communicate and share our lives in a broader way. It strengthened our bond, and I believe it made us closer," Nichelle said. "As we got older and as our lives changed, we had more and more in common. We had all these different ways to support and encourage each other."

The year 2017 brought their 50th birthdays and they decided Nichelle would visit New York at the end of August.

"We decided to do it this year -- it's a milestone," Diana said. "It's kind of crazy how it happened. We'd really started talking a lot the year before."

Nichelle flew in to Newark Liberty International Airport.

"I'm walking on that people mover and from the corner of my eye, I can see the other side, where people are waiting," Nichelle recalled. "I see her, she sees me, and she starts to tear up. We had the longest embrace!"

"It was great to meet her -- just great!" Diana said. "We both kept saying, 'Oh my God!'"

They couldn't wait to begin their person-to-person visit and settled in an airport restaurant.

"We sat there laughing and talking," Nichelle recalled.

A man in an adjacent booth joined in their conversation and turned out to be a professional photographer who recorded the moment and emailed the photo. At last, the two women got on the freeway to travel to Diana's home in Florida, N.Y.

As they explored the local community during the next few days, they visited a tattoo shop to permanently mark their friendship on their forearms.

"We ended up with two different things because we had different ideas," Diana said. "We both decided on the heart -- we both look at it and it reminds us of each other."

That weekend they drove into New York City.

"We walked all the way from the hotel down to Times Square," Nichelle said. "It was really just surreal."

She enjoyed the street performers, and they visited the Top of the Rock, the observatory atop Rockefeller Center. They went to museums, the 9/11 memorial, Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park and more.

Sometimes Diana perched outside a venue while Nichelle went exploring.

"She ran me ragged," Diana said. "I had had back surgery in 2016 and I was recovered but I couldn't keep up with her."

Now several months after the trip, they each mused on their connection and what made the friendship flourish.

"In a way, we couldn't be more different," Diana said. "She's on the West Coast, I'm on the East Coast; she's black, I'm white."

But they also have a lot in common. They each have one child, and have lost their husbands.

"We have both dealt with anxiety and financial issues," Diana said "We were able to help each other."

"I realized the power of female friends is a magnificent thing," Nichelle said. "She has picked me up when I'm down through text messages and phone calls, always being transparent, honest and loving."

And somehow they just clicked.

A recent study by a team from UCLA and Dartmouth has found that people who are friends have brains that see the world in the same way.

Although a regular on Instagram these days, Nichelle stills treasures snail mail and the written word.

"I think it's about what you value as a person and how you connect with someone else, whatever your connection is," she said. "I send out cards all the time. People are shocked they are still getting cards."

"I value the power of the written word and how it brings people together from all walks of life," she added. "A letter sent back in the '70s transformed into a beautiful, loving friendship."

Nichelle also believes women need to encourage each other as much as possible.

"I have a wonderful community of friends," she said. "We have to make time for each other."

Now the two pen pals are planning for Diana to visit California in a few years, when they turn 55.

"Since I have been back from my visit we have talked weekly via phone calls and text messages," Nichelle said. "I am thankful and grateful for my pen pal, who loved me unconditionally and has shown me what being a friend is all about."

Pen pals today

Communication is now instantaneous but nothing inspires young ones to take pen in hand like the anticipation of a letter in the old-fashioned mailbox. Hand-writing letters not only hones writing skills but broadens children's view of the world.

Where to find pen pals?

* Many adults are in touch with old friends no matter where their lives have taken them. Ask friends living in other places if their children of the same age are pen pal possibilities.

* If your child strikes up a friendship while on vacation or at camp, get the address and encourage them to keep in touch via pen and paper.

* Some schools have pen pal programs. If there is none at your school, you can research how to start one and share it with the teacher.

* The Internet has free resources to connect pen pals. If you worry about sharing your address, consider renting a post office box.

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