One hundred letters and 40 years later, international pen pals Maxine Neustroski and Ritva Hellberg finally met in person.
In a sweet reunion that took place in Gisborne, New Zealand, on December 28, Neustroski and Hellberg, both 50, fulfilled their life-long dream of greeting each other with a hug.
“There were many kisses and embraces before we shared a meal where the conversation began to flow and stories from past letters were retold,” Neustroski tells PEOPLE via email. “We laughed and laughed.”
The women were both 11 when they began corresponding with one another – Neustroski was attending primary school in Gisborne, New Zealand, and Hellberg was in Turku, Finland.
At first the girls wrote about school, their families, sporting activities and local events. As they grew older their conversations turned to teen romances, social gatherings and occupational choices. Eventually their discourse included wedding plans, children and growing old.
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“When we first started writing, the idea of meeting one day was a dream, but in reality it never seemed to eventuate,” says Neustroski. “One time Ritva wrote that we would have to meet up by the time we were 50! And she kept that promise.”
Many things have changed for the women since that first letter in 1977 – both have since married, enjoyed careers in the medical field and had children – but when they saw each other in person for the first time, it was like they were 11 years old again.
“Ritva was how I had always pictured her,” says Neustroski. “After all we grew up together, we shared our entire lives together through our letters.”