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Pen pal for 54 years travels to Finland to meet long-time friend

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POTSDAM - The scene is Jan Barrows’ sixth-grade classroom at Lawrence Avenue Elementary School in Potsdam. The year is 1959, and Ms. Barrows’ thought it would be interesting for her students to write letters to children in other countries since the class was studying World Geography at the time.

One of her young pupils, Charlotte Layaw (Kerns), now 65 and living in Annapolis, Md. is assigned to write a letter to a pen pal in Finland. Meanwhile in Finland, a young teenager named Marja Hammar had advertised in her local newspaper that she was interested in writing someone in the United States in efforts to improve her English language abilities. This seemingly innocent assignment has officially come full circle as Ms. Kerns and her pen pal of 54 years, Ms. Hammar, have finally met in person.

Ms. Kerns was born in Potsdam and went to school there through seventh grade in 1961, before eventually moving to Maryland in 1969. However, during that school day in 1959 she unknowingly began a friendship that has lasted for over half a century. Ms. Kerns recalled that she believes she sent the first letter in the exchange and it was a simple introduction of “Hi, my name is so and so. How are you?”

The difficulty of maintaining a connection solely through written letters for so many years is phenomenal by itself without even adding in the fact that the two women’s primary languages were different.

“I tried to keep (language) simple. I later learned she used the dictionary extensively when she was writing to learn the words. She had studied English in school but when you don’t use it all the time, it gets rusty,” Ms. Kerns said. “She was always lamenting about her poor English. Her English was better than my Finnish though.”

Over the years the two women kept in contact occasionally and almost exclusively by snail mail.

“Over the years it wasn’t every month, two months, three months. There were periods when we didn’t talk for a while. It was all letters up until five or six years ago, until one day I decided, “Hey, I’m going to call,” Ms. Kerns said.

The 1960’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s, ‘90’s, and 2000’s passed. The world changed. Wars were fought, lives were lost and relationships developed and dissolved between countless people, but one thing that didn’t change was the occasional exchanges between the two women on different continents.

Throughout all of the years of conversing with a person she had not met, Ms. Kerns said she definitely thought about making the long trek to meet her pen pal.

“I had thought about (going to Finland) many, many times. It was sort of on my bucket list. Since I’m not getting any younger and she isn’t either, it was a sense of urgency for me,” Ms. Kerns said.

“To be fair, I think it was something on her mind as well. It’s one of those things that seemed unattainable and it was one of those things that seemed like it was never going to happen,” Ms. Kerns’ son, Adam Caruso, said. “We both had the consensus that there probably won’t be another time to do this. We didn’t have anything on the calendar.”

So Ms. Kerns and her son went to Finland in June to meet a woman she had communicated with for years for the very first time.

This remarkable opportunity actually stems from an event in Glen Burnie, Md., six years ago that one could only describe as a blessing in disguise.

“My late husband and I were at our granddaughter’s graduation at UNC-Chapel Hill. I got a phone call from Adam that there had been a fire at the house. He still lived in the house I had that he grew up in. The insurance took care of rebuilding it. After the money and stuff was taken care of, the remaining (money) in the bank… we didn’t have a particular use for it. Adam suggested the idea to go to Finland about a year ago,” Ms. Kerns said.

Mr. Caruso and Ms. Kerns boarded an airplane June 20 for a truly once in a lifetime experience. When asked about the moment she met her Finnish friend, Ms. Kerns had trouble trying to put the experience into words.

“We met in the airport. They came to pick us up. I personally was busy looking for customs, making sure we did everything right. It was Adam who spotted them,” she said. “It was kind of one of those rare moments. In a way you kind of don’t know how to react. It was a kind, sweet moment, and we hugged.”

Ms. Kerns and her son spent 10 days abroad, nearly all of them with Ms. Hammar and her husband, Raimo.

“The meeting was the ultimate reason to go over there, but we were basically tourists. We went to a few museums, took some cruises. Helsinki is the capital of Finland. It’s surrounded on three sides by water. On one of the islands there was a zoo, on another there was a military academy, on one there were vacation homes,” Mr. Caruso said.

“We tried to cram in as much of the cultural stuff as we could. We tried to get as much of a representative sample as we could. You don’t often find yourself being a tourist in your own city. I think Marja thanked us for enabling her to see more of the city she didn’t know about. She said she saw some things she may have not have otherwise known about.

“They drove us to their son’s house. Their son’s name is Petri and his fiancée is Minna. They have a cottage about two hours west of Helsinki. Marja and Raimo drove us there and we had a lovely tour of their cottage,” Ms. Kerns said. “Another day they drove us out to Porvoo, Finland. It is the second oldest city in Finland. It was Market Day, so people were there with crafts and food. One day we went to Tallinn, Estonia on a ferry. I had never been on a ferry before.”

While this entire trip was in planning, Ms. Kerns tracked down another instrumental figure in this story. She reached out to the woman who was the original reason these two friends ever made the connection from so many years ago.

“I found (Ms. Barrows) via Google. I actually talked with her a couple times. I let her know that this was something being planned,” Ms. Kerns said.

Other than her teacher, Ms. Kerns can certainly thank her son for making the improbable journey possible. He was the one who made the suggestion for the trip and basically convinced her to finally do it. For Mr. Caruso, it was quite an experience as well.

“It’s very difficult to find words to describe something like this. It was really exciting to be a part of. It was gratifying to see my mom go through something like this. After something like this going on for so long, you might take it for granted,” Mr. Caruso said. “I think it was just an incredible experience. Again to facilitate it and get my mom over there to meet this person was amazing.”

This once in a lifetime meeting appeared at first to be just that; once in a lifetime.

“It would be up in the air at this point (for another meeting). Marja and Raimo traveled to Spain and Portugal before but that’s about it,” Ms. Kerns said.

After a minute of re-thinking the proposition of seeing her friend of 54 years in the future one more time, she changed her sentiments.

“When there is another meeting, it would probably be Spain or Portugal, some place warm.”

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