Dear Satu: Letters Tell the Story of Our Lives

Satu gave me a big hug and said, "It wasn't so hard to recognize you." Satu Vaverka and I had been writing each other since 1966, when we were 11 or 12 years old, and had exchanged so many pictures over the years that we could easily spot each other in a crowd. Now, at Finland's Helsinki-Vantaa airport, we were finally face to face.

Our correspondence had started when I was a sixth grader at San Beda College, a Roman Catholic boys' school in Manila. My friend Benjie had a pen-pal business with a children's organization, and I paid him a few centavos to register my name. I requested a female pen pal in Finland, a country that appealed to me because it was cold (in contrast with the tropical Philippine weather) and distant, and, therefore, different.

Writing to Satu made me more observant about my culture and environment. In an early letter I described bibingka, a Philippine rice cake cooked over an open fire. I wanted to make clear to Satu in what way it was different from the typical Western cake made of flour, sugar and eggs.

For Satu, writing to me meant paying more attention when the Philippines was mentioned, especially in the newspapers. She told me, "Anything Philippine fascinated me ... Everything that came from you was exotic. Finland then was an isolated country." She admired my seemingly fluent written English, which then as now was spoken widely in the Philippines. "I had to ask my older sister to help me compose my letters to you," she admitted.

Satu had kept most of my letters, including their envelopes. I got goose bumps rereading words I had written decades before. The letters told the story of my life—my anxiety at migrating to America, my excitement at becoming an uncle for the first time, my experiences as a special-education teacher with the Chicago Public Schools. In 1982 I had written: "Nothing remains the same. It's nice to know that you're always around when these changes occur." Then, in 2001: "Thanks for leaving a message on my voice-mail. It was wonderful to hear your voice for the first time after about 35 years of friendship."

I've kept Satu's letters as well, along with the pictures she had sent. In one photograph she posed with the postcards and pictures I had sent her in the background. She wrote on the back of the picture: "I am in my room in the country. I always bring your postcards and photos wherever I go." I also have pictures of her with her Czech-born husband, David, and her firstborn, Arto ("my little dictator"), who was born in 1984.

During my visit, we tested our memories on the things we had written about. When I asked to visit Turku (Finland's old capital) and Rovaniemi (a city in northern Finland, near the Arctic Circle), she asked me why I wanted to go there. I replied, "Because you sent me postcards of those places!" When I brought her to a Philippine fiesta organized by Filipinos in Helsinki, she instantly recognized the folk dance tinikling, exclaiming, "You sent me a postcard of this dance!"

My childhood pen pal and I were fortunate in having only one choice of mail when we started writing to each other. Because we had to sit down, compose our thoughts and physically mail the letters, there was commitment to our relationship. Technology as we know it now was absent in our lives, so we used our imagination in writing and reading each other's letters. Our correspondence inspired a host of emotions—the eagerness of waiting for a letter, the excitement in opening the envelope and, finally, the joy of reading it.

Nowadays, Satu and I e-mail each other and use the snail mail when sending cards on special occasions and postcards when we travel. I find the timelessness of our friendship rather incredible. We were children when we started writing to each other. Now we are adults, and at an age when we can truly appreciate the amazing quality of our lifelong correspondence. When I told my letter carrier, Craig, about my plans to visit Satu in Finland, I proudly raised the stack of letters he had just delivered and declared with a flourish, "The power of mail!"