Letters start 60-year, cross-Atlantic friendship

World War II was finished, Bernice Petterson was 12, and her family had moved to Everett from North Dakota when she mailed her first letter to Scotland.

She’s now Bernice Bell, a 71-year-old whose childhood pen pal has become a treasured friend.

“As little kids, we would write to our cousins in North Dakota,” Bell said. One cousin sent her the name of Betty Harper, a Scottish girl the same age as Bernice.

On a holiday from Everett’s Washington School one day, Bernice decided to “sit down and write this girl a letter.”

In the dining room of Bell’s Everett home Wednesday, Betty Harper Innes recalled that it was Bernice’s cousin who wrote first. “We didn’t write long, just two or three letters,” said Innes, also 71. “Then Bernice wrote, and I wrote back nearly immediately.”

So began nearly 60 years of correspondence that’s blossomed into multi-generational family ties and trips back and forth across the Atlantic. More than all that, those childhood letters forged a bond that’s seen two women through milestones and tragedy.

“It’s been a very comfortable friendship. We’ve felt at home with one another,” said Bell, who is divorced and has a daughter, Gemma. In 1966, she lost her 9-year-old son in an accident.

Betty Innes and her husband, George, are in Everett for a two-week visit, making Bell’s house their home away from home. Their schedule is packed with sightseeing at Deception Pass and Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a night at the Driftwood Players theater in Edmonds and a gathering Sunday at the Everett home of Bell’s sister, Peggy Olson.

“I get a word in every couple of days,” said George Innes, laughing as he added his distinct brogue to the dining room conversation. “We’ve had good times here in America.”

Calling George “a prince of a man,” Bell said “he’s been as much in this friendship as we have.”

In 1981, the Inneses brought their two children on a driving trip to Disneyland with Bell. “George got an international driver’s license so he could help with the driving,” Bell said. She, in turn, went to Scotland when her friends’ daughter, Morag, was married. “I’ve been to the weddings of both their kids,” Bell said.

“And a Scottish wedding is a good wedding,” said Betty Innes, who goes dancing with her husband every Saturday night at the British Legion Club in their city of Dunfirmline. In 1997, Bell spent Christmas with her friends in Scotland. Hanging in her dining room is a picture of the abbey where they attended Christmas services.

With birthdays three days apart — Betty Innes’ is Nov. 19 and Bell’s is Nov. 22 — they celebrated turning 60 together on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

Today, they’re more apt to chat by phone than wait for letters from across the sea. They haven’t forgotten the excitement of long-ago mail and gifts sent for birthdays and holidays. Young Bernice sent her friend a tiny tea set from the old Woolworth’s store in downtown Everett. Betty gave her pen pal a pin from her girlhood home, Cowdenbeath. “I wore it and wore it,” said Bell, who still has some musty letters tucked away in a closet.

They’ve met many times over the years, but will never forget the first time. They were 37, and Bell had traveled to Norway with her parents before going to Scotland to meet her friend.

“I worried myself sick wondering if I would like her,” Betty Innes said. “Five minutes after meeting, it was like we’d known her all our lives.”

“I was so excited,” Bell said. “We used to end all our letters with ‘Someday, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could meet?’ “

It’s wonderful still. I wonder if today’s chatter of e-mail and text messages could possibly create friendships as lasting.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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