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Bermudian hosts longtime pen pal

For ever friends: Marsha Thomas, right, is visiting Bermuda after writing to her pen pal, Bermudian Juliana Swan for 52 years (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

An American who has been pen pals with a Bermudian for 52 years has set foot on the island for the first time.

Marsha Thomas, 64, from Sparta, Illinois, describes Juliana Swan, 63, from Pembroke, as “family” and says she has fallen in love with Bermuda.

Ms Swan first wrote to Ms Thomas when she was just 12 years old after reading a pen pal column in an Archie comic book her parents had forbidden her to read. The pair stayed in touch ever since and she has visited Ms Thomas in Illinois on several occasions. Ms Thomas recalled: “When Juliana wrote to me I thought, ‘Bermuda, that’s cool’. She sounded very interesting so I wrote back and we have written back and forth, and sent each other pictures and mementoes over the years.

“We have both raised children and she has been to visit me. This is my first time here. I just retired and it was on my bucket list.”

Ms Swan, who worked in the medical field, as a reserve officer and now for the Ministry of National Security, said: “The first letter was basic, ‘Hello, I live in Bermuda and got your name out of the comic book’.

“Then we would write about our schools, grades, brothers, sisters.

“My first visit was when her daughter got baptised in 1978 — I just had a baby in ‘77 and I flew out. It was exciting — it felt like my family. Nowadays we keep in touch through Facebook.”

Ms Thomas added: “The first time we met it was like the long-lost sister you hadn’t seen for ever.”

Ms Thomas, who worked for the Department of Children and Family Services in Illinois for 30 years, arrived in Bermuda last Thursday and the two pen pals have been touring the island.

She said: “I am still amazed at how blue the water is. My favourite part so far was going to Horseshoe Bay.

“I’m impressed with the colours of the houses and everything is so clean here, too.

“It seems like she knows everybody here. She was tooting everyone in the car. I love it.”

Ms Swan recalled how she took her young daughters to Illinois 36 years ago because they wanted to see snow.

Ms Thomas laughed: “It was one of the coldest winters we’d ever had! My husband and I picked them up at the airport and there was slushy snow on the parking lot.

“The girls were so excited, but it was just this dirty, grey snow. But when we got home they played in the white snow.”

Ms Swan, who is godmother to Ms Thomas’s eldest daughter, added: “Marsha met both of my daughters again today. They still remember that trip vividly.”

Both pen pals reflected on the dying art of letter writing. Ms Swan said: “People seldom write letters now. I wrote a letter to my friend the other day in Atlanta — she asked why she didn’t call her on the phone.

“She had been down about stuff. I didn’t ask about it, but she said it made her cry and that it was the nicest thing anyone could have done for her. I get friends little cards when I go away.”

Ms Thomas added: “I think people are just too busy for it nowadays. I still send cards to my friends.”

Asked whether she intends to return to Bermuda, Ms Thomas said: “I would like to, and I’ll bring my husband next time.”