SYCAMORE, Ill. (STMW) — For a moment, they were the same two excited 8-year-old girls who first began looking for things they had in common 36 years ago.
“It’s amazing. It’s just amazing,” Glenna Godinsky said. “I was sure you were going to be taller than me. We’re just the same. We’re twins.”
Godinsky flung her arms wide as she greeted her longtime friend Bronwen Layfield on Wednesday at O’Hare International Airport, no different from the hundreds of friends who greet each other each day at the Chicago airport. Except that Godinsky, of west suburban Sycamore, and Layfield, of Australia, had never met each other before.
The two had gotten to know each other only through their letters, exchanged ever since the two were paired as pen pals in a third-grade project at Highland Elementary School in Elgin.
“It’s like meeting a long-lost relative,” Layfield said.
Godinsky still has the first draft of the first letter she wrote to Layfield.
That was in 1975, Godinsky said. Her teacher at Highland, Mrs. Gundling, had hatched the letter exchange idea with her former college roommate, Mrs. Crump, then teaching third grade in Australia.
The Highland students wrote first.
“I am a girl. I love cats. I would like to have a girl pen pal that like’s (sic) cat’s (sic),” wrote Godinsky, then Glenna Crichton.
Layfield said her teacher then listed the Highland students’ names on the chalkboard and let them choose their pen pal. When her turn came, there were two girls’ names left, and she said, “I thought they both sounded nice.”
She picked Bronwen Tansley, who wrote back that she also loved cats. In their second round of letters, the two girls learned they shared the same Oct. 13 birthday, too.
She enclosed photos of pelicans and koalas, taped Australian coins to her letters and sent cards with distinctly Aussie wishes, such as “Have a Blooming Wonderful Birthday.” In one of her most memorable letters, she begged Godinsky to send her bubblegum after one of her sister’s friends had brought her bubblegum from a trip to the United States and wouldn’t share.
It was exciting every time the mail came, Godinsky said, “because the letters looked so different with the air mail stamp.”
She saved them all, first in boxes, now in four thick binders she put together in preparation for Layfield’s visit.
“I started in March,” she said. “I couldn’t help myself — I had to read them.”
She and Layfield pored over those letters — one from each, averaging once a month, over almost four decades — with their families in the Godinskys’ kitchen.
“How do you write so many letters?” asked Lache, Layfield’s 13-year-old son.
Over time, the lists of facts about the girls and their home countries gave way to stories about friends and family, questions about what was fashionable, and requests for advice. There were photos of the men who would become their husbands and first photos of each of their children, all about the same age.
Layfield’s children are 17 (James), 13 (Lache) and 11 (Sam); Godinsky’s are 16 (Matt), 13 (Cam) and 9 (Amber). All play sports: cricket and soccer in Australia; basketball and baseball or softball here.
“It just always happened all along — it paralleled,” Layfield said.
Godinsky added, “There’s definitely more than just luck here.”
And that’s what has kept the two writing to each other long after their classmates stopped writing, they agreed. That, and cats, Sam joked.
“Because we had so much in common, it was very easy,” Layfield said.
The two even have worked with their oldest sons’ teachers, including Vickie Garwood and Melissa Schultz of Creekside Elementary School in Elgin, to continue their legacy of exchanging letters. That’s been harder than they thought with the way the school years in Australia and the U.S. are staggered, they admitted.
Those letters now have turned into Facebook messages and emails. And most recently, they turned to a discussion of the Layfields coming to visit America.
Two of Layfield’s sons had been watching the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” set in New York. And Layfield decided she wanted to go to New York.
Her family finally arrived in the United States April 3, and they visited Hollywood, Disneyland, San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York City before landing at O’Hare on Wednesday.
“I always thought that I would be the first American she saw, but it didn’t work out that way,” Godinsky said. “They’ve been doing the America thing for weeks. I’ll be the first Chicagoan they see.”
While together in the Chicago area, the two families plan to go to a Cubs baseball game; visit the Willis Tower, the Magnificent Mile and Millennium Park in Chicago; and vacation in the Wisconsin Dells. Godinsky and Layfield also plan to visit Highland, where their pen pal friendship began.
And Layfield said she was looking forward to the quiet of small-town Sycamore for the last few days of her family’s trip.
“It was like you were there. It was always like you were there,” Godinsky told her.
“It just felt like — like we hadn’t come halfway around the world to see you,” Layfield said. “It’s like going to a friend’s home.”
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