Lena Eaton and Emily Crossfield grew up together, sharing each other's joys and sorrows for 60 years although they lived an ocean apart.
The two women, both grandmothers now, met for the first time last week. They greeted one another in an emotional scene at Dulles International Airport when Crossfield, 72, arrived from Australia for a three-week visit with Eaton, 75, who lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Southeast Washington.
It was in August 1923 that Eaton received her first letter from Crossfield, then a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Leeds, England. Crossfield's teacher had requested letters from American children, then asked her students to answer them as a writing assignment. Crossfield was given Eaton's letter and the two have corresponded since.
Crossfield's first letter, a yellowed, fragile memento that Eaton still cherishes, read, "My dear American Friend, I am very glad to have the opportunity of writing to you from our school. It gives me great pleasure to think that I have a friend over the sea to whom I can write . . . . Your English friend, Emily Pearson."
This was the first of many letters in which Crossfield and Eaton shared moments of happiness, grief and changes in their lives over the years, as they became adults, found jobs, married and raised three children each.
The letters continued during World War II when Crossfield worked as a saleswoman in a glass and china shop and Eaton as a secretary in a Washington insurance agency.
They did not stop in 1950 when Crossfield moved from England to Australia with her husband and children.
"For 60 years," said Crossfield, now a widow, "we wrote each other at Christmas, once or twice during the year and when events happened in our families."
Eaton, a lifelong Washington resident, said, "We've written so many letters, but they contained nothing political, just personal notes. We talked about our children and gardening."
Although they never telephoned one another or talked face to face before, sitting on the back porch of Eaton's Southeast home last week they behaved like sisters despite the distance, different cultures and life styles that have separated them.
Crossfield seemed at home in Eaton's meticulously decorated, two-story brick house. A statuesque woman in a blue print dress, she beamed at Eaton, who seemed more reserved but apparently just as delighted with the visit.
"When we first met, we felt like sisters," Eaton said. "We watched each other's children grow up through pictures." Recalling their airport meeting, Eaton said, "My son saw a lady in a red dress and asked, could that be her? I ran up to the lady, hugged and kissed her, then asked, 'Are you Emily?' She was."
"My family," Eaton said, "they think our friendship is wonderful."
Crossfield added, "My friends ask me, have you heard from Lena?" And again, the two shared a smile.
Crossfield and Eaton have quite a lot in common, according to William P. Eaton, Lena's husband. "Their families and . . . views are similar, and they write very newsy letters."
"I was going to England from Australia , so I said I'm going to see Lena," said Crossfield, who arranged the meeting. As to when they might meet again, Crossfield said, "I have no idea."
Crossfield, who has never been to the United States, said she will go "wherever my friends take me" during her Washington stay.
Crossfield said, "Our writing came natural, we wouldn't let a Christmas go by without writing each other. Don't you feel that way," she said to Eaton, who nodded yes and said, "I never thought it unusual, we just wrote."